Buzzworm news briefs

Beacon blaze left mammoth mess

It was the biggest fire in Western North Carolina’s history. Now, seven months later, about all that’s left of the Beacon Manufacturing plant in Swannanoa is 57,000 tons of still-smoldering debris. And someone’s got to clean it up.

“It’s very difficult to comprehend the absolute scale of destruction we’ve got here,” Michael Sheehan told the board of the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency in early March. Sheehan’s company, Pinnacle Consulting Group, is orchestrating the cleanup; the 14-acre area of devastation contains an estimated 4,200 dump-truck loads of charred rubble.

The heat from the Sept. 3, 2003 conflagration at the former blanket factory was so intense that workers are still uncovering glowing-hot embers, not to mention pools of melted wiring. And since the plant’s buildings dated back as far as 1924, the site is littered with construction materials now banned as toxic. The old boilers were lined with asbestos, and a portable X-ray unit has detected lead paint in the rubble. Pinnacle, supervised by local regulators, is monitoring the site (including perimeter and surface waters) for signs of air and water pollution.

Fortunately, though, the fire spared a lab filled with flasks and drums of highly concentrated dyes, noted Sheehan, praising Chief Anthony Penland‘s Swannanoa Volunteer Fire Department for keeping the flames away.

“One drum could have dyed the Swannanoa River for miles,” Sheehan remarked.

But while firefighters were preoccupied with the blaze, an unknown culprit got past a locked fence and released about 5,000 gallons of No. 6 fuel oil into a creek feeding into the Swannanoa River. Some of that very thick and hard-to-remove oil still remains, said Sheehan. He also confirmed that officials are still investigating the Beacon fire as a possible arson.

The plastic-wrapped truckloads of debris are being transported to the Palmetto Landfill in Spartanburg, S.C. The only fill going to the Buncombe County landfill are the remains of clean masonry walls. The plant’s thick, concrete foundations will be ground up and recycled in a future building on the site.

Sheehan’s South Carolina-based firm was hired by Carolina First Bank, which now owns the Beacon site. And when an Air Quality Agency board member asked whether Pinnacle was hiring former employees of the longtime local landmark to do the cleanup work, Sheehan replied wryly, “I haven’t yet met anybody [locally] who hasn’t worked in the plant.”

To monitor the Beacon cleanup for yourself via live webcam, visit www.pincongrp.com.

— Steve Rasmussen

Multicultural women’s conference

When Ann Miller Woodford returned to Andrews in 1992 after having lived away from the area for half her life, “I saw the same kinds of things happening that happened all the way back when I was a child,” she recalls.

Woodford is talking about the sense of isolation experienced by African-Americans in Cherokee County, who account for a mere 1.8 percent of the local population (compared to 22 percent statewide).

All the African-American women she knew who were contributing to the community were doing so either through their churches or individually. “I began to think about it, and I thought that if we could pull together a group of women … [and] teach them how to work together, we would get a lot more done,” Woodford explains.

She also saw a need for black women to assume leadership roles. Cherokee County has no black elected officials, law-enforcement officers, teachers, attorneys or physicians, notes Woodford.

That inspired her to found One Dozen Who Care in 1998. The group, made up of African-American women from Cherokee and neighboring Clay County, seeks to empower not just black women but all women in the region. There are now also members from Macon and Jackson counties, including one woman of mixed Native American and white ancestry.

“We have a lot to offer to the community, to help and share in … the growth and development in our community — meaning the whole community,” stresses Woodford. “From the very beginning, we decided that every program we had would be open to everyone.”

The group has initiated leadership and economic-development programs, a mentoring project, a festival of African-American gospel music, a storytelling guild, and more.

But their flagship project, says Woodford, is the yearly Multicultural Women’s Development Conference, which seeks to give participating women from WNC and beyond the resources they need “for advancement in business aspirations, higher education, personal and business finance, and in life-skills management.”

Besides bringing women of all races together, past conferences have also featured women talking about their various faiths: Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Christian.

This year’s conference happens Friday and Saturday, April 16-17 at the Hinton Rural Life Center in Hayesville, N.C. It will feature a diverse array of sessions, including: “Starting Your Own Business,” “Help Heal the Hurt: Becoming a Child Advocate,” “Raising Powerful Girls and Anti-sexist Boys,” “Take Time To Laugh and Prevent Hardening of the Attitudes,” “Vision Quest” and “Journey to the Center of Your Intuition.”

“It’s always so much fun, because these women are able to, as we call it, let their hair down and just relax and laugh and have a good time,” says Woodford.

The cost ranges anywhere from $15 (to attend only the lunch and keynote address on either day) to $125 (for a two-night stay at the Hinton Center, seven meals, and full attendance both days). Scholarships are available, and participants are encouraged to register ASAP.

New this year is Cultural Diversity Day, slated for Thursday, April 15. The event, open to both men and women, seeks to bring together people who don’t usually cross paths to talk about some of the issues they’re facing (this year, the focus will be on race relations). The day will wrap up with a festival featuring Latin American, Native American and African-American drummers. The cost is $25 (including lunch and dinner).

For more information, contact Woodford at (828) 321-1000 (e-mail: woodford@dnet.net), or visit the One Dozen Who Care Web site (www.odwc.org).

— Lisa Watters

Taking aim at childhood obesity

Here’s a startling statistic: About 21 percent of North Carolina children ages 5 to 11 are overweight, according to the nonprofit Children First of Buncombe County. The same holds true for 13.5 percent of the children ages 2 to 4.

To zero in on the issue, Children First and the Junior League of Asheville are sponsoring this year’s Child Watch Tour, “Moving Our Children to a Healthy Weight.”

Participants will hear about the medical, emotional and economic consequences of childhood obesity — plus some ways the community could address the issue. They’ll also get to eat a school lunch with local students and hear what they have to say about the issue.

The event happens Thursday, April 15 from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Registration begins at 8 a.m. at the Asheville City Schools central office (85 Mountain St.).

To register, contact Allison Jordan of Children First at 259-9717 (e-mail: allisonj@childrenfirstbc.org) by Friday, April 9.

— Tracy Rose

Creativity + community = fun prizes

Time is running out for local kids to enter a community-themed poster contest.

Sponsored by the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council and the Mountain Area Health Education Center, the contest is open to Asheville and Buncombe County pupils in grades K-8.

The theme is, “What brings us together as a community?”

Three young artists will take home donated prizes: a LeapPad interactive learning package (for K-2 students) and computers for those in grades 3-5 and 6-8.

Any art medium is fine, as long as the poster board measures 22 by 28 inches. Submissions must include the student’s complete name, address, phone number, grade and homeroom or art teacher, as well as the school’s name.

Hurry, though. Posters are due at the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council office by 5 p.m. on Friday, April 16.

For more info, call Carolyn Stanberry at the Asheville-Buncombe Community Relations Council (252-4713). Or stop by the group’s office in Room 214 of the United Way Building, 50 S. French Broad Ave., Asheville (9 a.m.-5 p.m.).

— Tracy Rose

The fate of Aston Park

A two-paragraph letter about Aston Park written by Asheville Mayor Charles Worley generated a flurry of comments at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ March 30 budget meeting.

The Jan. 27 letter to Chairman Nathan Ramsey reads as follows:

“On behalf of the City Council and as you have requested, I officially ask the County to transfer Aston Park to the City effective July 1, 2004. As you know, we have been in communication about the possibility of this happening for sometime. Based on your comments at the recent joint City-County meeting, it appears now is a good time to conclude this matter.

“The City will continue to use Aston Park as a park, with tennis as a major venue. Thank you for consideration of this matter. Should you need any additional information, please do not hesitate to call me.”

Aston Park is located within the city limits, but it became a county park under the 1981 water agreement.

Since Ramsey was working on his farm and couldn’t attend the meeting, his four fellow board members were left to mull their options without the benefit of his input.

County Manager Wanda Greene noted that the Irene & Dick Covington Foundation had given the county a $277,000 grant (in October 2002) to renovate the Aston Park tennis clubhouse. But at the city’s request, she said, the county is holding off on the project until after this year’s tennis tournament.

“If we do anything, the water agreement has to be changed — in our favor this time,” proclaimed Vice Chairman Bill Stanley. “They’ll have to compensate us a heap for that.”

Stanley and fellow commissioners David Gantt and Patsy Keever agreed that they’d like to re-examine the entire water agreement before transferring Aston Park to the city.

But Commissioner David Young seemed more interested in the $100,000 the county could save annually if it didn’t have to spend that money to maintain Aston Park.

“I like that,” Young declared.

Greene said she would draft a letter to City Manager Jim Westbrook the next day reflecting the board’s sentiments.

The commissioners also took a look at other capital needs, as well as preliminary figures for the county’s 2004-05 operating budget. And with elections looming in November, no tax increase is anticipated for the coming fiscal year, which begins July 1.

The board decided to cancel its April 20 meeting and to switch its first May meeting to Tuesday, May 11. That session should be of interest to those following the continuing lively debate over public-access TV: That’s when the board is now scheduled to decide whether it will launch negotiations with URTV, the nonprofit that would manage the new channel, Gantt said after the meeting.

— Tracy Rose

Speak your mind about mental-health reform

If you’ve got an opinion about how the state’s revamped mental-health system is working, you’ll want to attend one of two upcoming “listening sessions.”

Buncombe County residents, former Blue Ridge Center clients and “community stakeholders” are invited to offer feedback about Buncombe County’s March 1 transition from publicly to privately provided mental-health services.

“A community stakeholder is essentially anybody who’s interested in giving feedback,” notes Reed Russell, community-relations specialist at the Western Highlands Network, the local management entity administering the new system.

The session is set for 5:30 to 7 p.m. on Thursday, April 8 in the Laurel Building at A-B Tech in Asheville. The session has been organized by the Western Highlands Network and the Consumer and Family Advisory Committee.

Winter weather canceled three February forums in Madison, Mitchell and Yancey counties, where privatization kicked in Dec. 1.

Two rescheduled sessions have already occurred, and a new Mitchell County session is scheduled for Wednesday, April 28 from 5:30 to 7 p.m. at Mitchell High School.

For details, contact Reed Russell at (828) 225-2800.

— Tracy Rose

X marks the money

An addition to this year’s North Carolina income-tax form is making history.

A new program designed to provide an independent source of campaign funds for candidates in statewide judicial races is the first of its kind in the nation. The $3 check-off box for the N.C. Public Campaign Financing Fund will provide financing for candidates who agree to accept strict fund-raising limits.

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