"Would you like a bottle of water?" asks Larry Rice as we complete a brief tour of his family’s property off Mills Gap Road in south Asheville.
Rice’s parents bought the property adjacent to the CTS of Asheville plant in the mid-’70s, and for years, the family got its water from a natural spring on their property. The little wetland is still there, but it's now surrounded by a 6-foot chainlink fence; signs warn people not to drink or have any contact with the water.
Over the years, neighbors have complained of many serious health problems, including rare tumors, immune disorders, persistent fainting spells and birth defects. A group of neighbors says it has assembled evidence of chemical dumping at CTS that allegedly continued for years; Rice says he now drinks only bottled water.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is in the process of listing the former CTS property as a Superfund site. A large sign displaying the Superfund logo was recently erected in front of the shuttered factory, but the official listing has been delayed while the EPA analyzes the public comments it must consider first. Ranking the property among the nation’s most contaminated sites could facilitate the cleanup neighbors have been seeking for decades, though it’s no guarantee of prompt or comprehensive action.
In June, Buncombe County launched condemnation proceedings against the derelict building as a first step toward demolishing it. But the current property owner has appealed the condemnation proceedings. At a Sept. 19 hearing, Mills Gap Road Associates said it wants to investigate the cost of stabilizing the building by “boarding up doors and windows, if doing so would prevent condemnation.” According to county inspections staff, however, the structure appears too far gone to be repaired.
Neighbors anxious for a remedy support demolition, but continued legal skirmishing between CTS and the Asheville-based Mills Gap Road Associates has further complicated the picture.
In July 2010, CTS sued Mills Gap Road Associates, saying the business wasn’t doing its share in covering the assessment and remediation costs, as spelled out in a 2004 EPA “administrative order on consent.” When the property changed hands in 1987, however, CTS had warranted that it was in compliance with all environmental laws and regulations. That claim has since been rejected by public agencies as well as area residents investigating the source of contamination found in soils, surface and ground water downhill from the site.
Meanwhile, as the building has fallen into disrepair, vandals have gained entry, stealing copper pipes and leaving telltale graffiti (see Feb. 23 Xpress blog post “Seeking Relief: CTS Neighbors File Lawsuit”). And in late August, CTS sent Mills Gap Road Associates a letter demanding that the property owner immediately pay off an outstanding promissory note related to the property. Citing the condemnation proceedings, the letter asserts that Mills Gap Road Associates has defaulted on an agreement to keep the premises in good repair.
In yet another wrinkle, the county has said it intends to place a lien on the property to recover the cost of demolishing the building.
Officials from the EPA’s Superfund program, including Branch Chief Don Rigger, were in Asheville Sept. 15 to host a “public availability session” — even as EPA contractors collect the latest round of samples from contaminated wells and springs in the area.
For their part, the beleaguered neighbors would be glad to see the derelict building gone, says resident Tate MacQueen. "However, if the shell of the building goes and the contamination underneath is not addressed, then it's just an exercise in beautification by concealing the wound. There is the potential for a whitewash here,” he maintains, “and that's the last thing we can afford. This should be a case study for EPA Region 4, for how to turn a wrong into a right."
Residents have repeatedly accused the very federal and state agencies that are supposed to protect human health and the environment of covering up their mishandling of the CTS case. At a public meeting last fall, Rigger apologized to residents for his agency’s mistakes, acknowledging errors in detecting the problem and delays in acting on it once it was discovered.
"It's one thing to acknowledge your mistakes," says MacQueen. "It's another thing for them — the people who made these decisions — to show that they actually learn from their mistakes. That's what we're looking for."
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