The bluish, oily sheen coating the surface of a tiny creek that runs downstream from CTS of Asheville is obvious to any observer. So is the sharp odor it gives off.
“Even a child could determine that there is a problem,” said state Rep. Charles Thomas, who also happens to live nearby.
“We smell it every time we take a walk,” noted Dot Rice, who lives just off Mills Gap Road, downhill from the former electroplating plant. Rice first learned of the contamination that was leaching onto her family’s property in 1999, when she discovered an oily substance in their drinking water. Tests revealed levels of trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, at 21,000 parts per billion—more than 4,000 times the safe limit for drinking water.
Her family has since switched to city water, and Rice says she hadn’t seen anyone from state or federal agencies take a sample from her spring in years until the morning of Sept. 26, when a small crowd gathered in her driveway. Three representatives of the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources had come from Raleigh, equipped with a water-sampling kit. They were joined by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency staffer David Dorian, who’d traveled from Atlanta. French Broad Riverkeeper Hartwell Carson and concerned resident Barry Durand were also on hand, along with Rep. Thomas and a television-news crew from Channel 13. The group slogged into a poison-ivy-infested swamp to watch and ask questions as DENR staffer Harry Zinn collected water samples.
“As part of the EPA oversight, and as part of the state’s role, taking samples here is part of the regulatory program,” Dorian explained. “But it would be disingenuous to suggest that the increased attention the site has received has not moved this a bit further up the ladder.” That attention came partly in the form of a phone call from the office of U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler, who expressed concern about the site after Carson brought it to his attention.
No one disputes that hazardous chemicals continue to migrate from the old factory, which closed its doors more than two decades ago. What’s yet to be determined is whether the agencies will try a new approach to cleaning up the contamination. In 2006, at the EPA’s behest, CTS installed equipment at the site that draws hazardous vapors from the soil. To date, the system has removed some 1,600 pounds of volatile organic compounds, Dorian reports. “We have no basis of knowledge as to how much was spilled, so whether that was a significant percentage or just a fraction of what was released is largely unknown.”
Other evidence is now calling the vapor-extraction system’s effectiveness into question. In March, independent sampling requested by Rice detected contamination in her spring at 293,000 parts per billion—more than 10 times higher than the 1999 level. “Once contaminants are past the zone of influence of the soil-vapor extraction system, they continue to migrate,” notes Dorian.
Durand, the concerned resident, had questions for the state and federal agency representatives. “My concern,” he told Dorian, “Is that CTS got the easiest route out. This is a substantial endangerment to public health—those are words from that [EPA] document itself. … This is one instance where you can actually do something while it’s still hot. That’s the point.” Durand repeatedly referred to technical documents produced by those agencies, which he’d studied closely.
The agency representatives said they knew of no drinking wells in the immediate area. “At this point in time, I don’t think anyone in the area should feel threatened,” Zinn said in an interview that was later broadcast on channel 13 news.
But Thomas pointed to graffiti on the old plant as evidence that kids play in the hazardous-waste site. “It looks like an attractive nuisance,” he said. “There is no warning to let you know that while it looks like a fun place to play, it could give you cancer.”