The item wasn’t even on the agenda, but at their March 25 meeting, the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners got an earful from residents of the Mills Gap Road area, adjacent to the contaminated CTS industrial site.
The residents had come out in force to oppose a proposed rezoning of land near the site, but the item was pulled from the agenda before the meeting at the request of property owner Wesley Greene, who did not return phone calls requesting comment. The change would allow denser development on two parcels totaling 9 acres. Residents also lambasted the board for what they called its apathetic attitude toward the suffering caused by dangerous chemicals in their water.
“My well is contaminated. I have 10 times the legal federal limit of TCE in my well—directly caused by the CTS plant—and I live three-quarters of a mile away with a deep well,” said Suzanne Johnson.
TCE is an industrial contaminant that may cause dizziness, kidney and nervous system damage, and is a suspected carcinogen.
“This is dreadfully scary stuff, and it’s in water I’ve been drinking for over seven years,” said Johnson. “I was told not to drink this water, not to give this water to my pets, not to shower in this water—not even to breathe the fumes of this water. How has this been allowed to go on for so many years? Now developers are trying to build homes, endangering even more people. How many more will it take before this site gets cleaned up?”
Like many of the 15 people who spoke during the public-comment period before the formal meeting, Johnson called for a federal board of inquiry. None spoke in favor of the move.
“You should vote against this code change and further development,” urged resident Donald Moyer. “We are concerned with public health. If people come there, they’re coming into an area that EPA, the state’s Department of [Environment and] Natural Resources and county Health [Department] have all determined there’s a migration of pollutants from the soils across the area under way even as we sit here today.”
Tate McQueen, a history teacher who lives less than 1,000 feet from the CTS site, also criticized the board.
“How many Upton Sinclairs do you need for you to tell that there’s muck that you can start raking—which is what we’ve entrusted you to do,” asked McQueen. “All we’re asking for is a little relief. If you had children living there, it would probably spur you to greater action. What more do you need? It’s not smart, it’s not sensible to put more people in danger.”
But Chairman Nathan Ramsey responded that, correctly or otherwise, the official position of both the EPA and DENR is that the contamination isn’t spreading and the board lacks the legal power to take further action.
“Now whether that’s scientific or not—I’m not a scientist—they don’t think it’s a public-health danger,” noted Ramsey.
“We do not believe there is a public-health emergency at this time,” Dawn Harris-Young, a spokesperson for the EPA’s regional office in Atlanta, confirmed later.
DENR, however, has required CTS to submit a plan for a ground-water assessment, to determine how far the pollution has spread. The agency may revisit its position once that information is in hand. Earlier testing found one well out of 90 in the area—Johnson’s—that had a dangerous TCE level.
But Mack Robinson, whose driveway borders the contaminated Robinson Creek, said he had his well disconnected by the county Health Department before the testing was done, and that his family has faced great hardship due to TCE contamination.
“I am appalled at the people, the responsible ones, who didn’t do anything,” Robinson said. “They assumed everyone in the area had city water—well, I didn’t. My daughter lived with us for some years. She’s had seven tumors removed from the back of her leg because of this. Do you know what it’s like to have to pick her up out of the bathtub when she passes out from the dizziness caused by this chemical? Please, step up to the plate and make these people get it out of the ground!”
Aaron Penland also blasted the board. “You folks just sit up here stone-faced; you look like there’s no concern whatsoever. These people are talking about life and death,” he said. “People are dying; people are getting sick. What have you done? We’ve tried contacting the governor; he doesn’t want to hear from us. You, our elected officials, have you tried to contact him about this? No. Every time we come up here, it’s the same look, like you don’t give a damn.”
At that, Ramsey wielded his gavel.
“Go ahead—slam your gavel,” said Penland, adding, “That was out of line. But you know what? It’s the truth.”
In response, Ramsey said: “I understand why you’re mad. But from our standpoint, how can we force CTS? We have no legal standing. EPA and DENR have jurisdiction over this matter.”
That wasn’t the evening’s only disputed rezoning, however. On a 3-2 vote, the commissioners rezoned portions of two parcels on Highway 70 to R-3, which allows denser development (up to four units per acre). Together, the two parcels comprise 97 acres; the rezoned area totals 22 acres.
Both county staff and the Planning Board had recommended against the change, saying that the 32 percent slope on these areas makes them unsuitable for denser development. “Generally we don’t split-zone, but given that they’re such large parcels, there are different conditions, with the front more suited to development and the top much more steep,” county planner Debbie Truempy explained.
Property owner R.L. Bailey said he wanted the rezoning simply to make the affected areas consistent with the rest of the property. He told the board that his plans “are probably just to keep farming it until I go broke.”
“It does seem kind of strange to have a parcel be two different kinds of zoning,” said Commissioner David Young, noting that any development proposed for the site would still have to come back before the board.
Vice Chair David Gantt and Commissioner Carol Peterson opposed the change. The decision “sets a really bad precedent,” Gantt told Xpress later. “That’s a very environmentally sensitive area, and that kind of slope isn’t suited for dense development.”
Emergency-response teams to get new home
Buncombe County Emergency Services will soon oversee a consolidation of the 911 dispatch centers for the Asheville Police Department, the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office and fire-and-rescue services. “This is the first time all of these services will be under one roof … and we’re looking forward to it,” said Fire Marshal Mack Salley, who’s coordinating the move. The agencies are moving to the former County Home property across from Erwin High School.
Funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has enabled the county to put together specialized response teams, noted Emergency Services Director Jerry VeHaun. “One of those is an urban search-and-rescue team, their equipment and training both furnished by Homeland Security. If something happens, they go in, shore up the building and do the heavy rescue,” he explained. The county now also has a hazardous-materials team, he said.
In other business, the commissioners expanded the Environmental Advisory Board and made seven unanimous appointments (see sidebar, “Developers Appointed to Environmental Board”).