U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials thought they were bringing good news to neighbors of the highly contaminated former CTS of Asheville site on Mills Gap Road. The officials tried to tell the long-suffering residents about technical-assistance grants and further testing services that may soon become available, and encouraged them to create an EPA-sponsored community advisory group to help access additional support.
But the residents — some of whom now suffer from cancer and other health problems as well as diminished property values — had bigger fish to fry at the April 14 community meeting. And despite the best efforts of two EPA staffers and a paid facilitator, the discussion remained focused on neighbors’ outrage over the continuing lack of cleanup at the former electroplating facility, the site of alleged chemical dumping.
“We already have a technical-assistance group,” noted Barry Durand, one of several residents who’ve led the charge against the various state and federal agencies that they say have repeatedly and negligently failed to protect public health and the environment.
And the very idea of the EPA’s staging yet another community meeting while an emergency plays out nearby is “a colossal joke with no punch line,” Tate MacQueen proclaimed.
Margaret Riddle agreed, declaring, “If you don’t clean up the source” — referring to the high levels of contaminants still flowing from the site and presumed to lurk beneath the shuttered plant — “We’re wasting our time here.”
Neighbors have complained about chemical odors in their backyards and basements, and high levels of contaminants, including trichloroethylene, continue to be found in local springs and streams. A soil-vapor extraction system installed in 2006 recovered some 6,500 pounds of volatile organic compounds before it was disabled by presumed copper thieves who broke into the plant last year.
Meanwhile, Lori Murphy, who lives near the site, worries that something’s wrong with the water in the home she shares with her husband and pregnant daughter. “In the last two weeks, you wash your hair and it comes out oily. We have rashes on our skin” after showering, she told the crowd at the Skyland Fire Department.
“It’s like an endurance test,” MacQueen told Xpress later, adding that the EPA’s failure to initiate an emergency cleanup is “like trying to use a mop while the hose is still running. It’s ridiculous.”
Last month, after decades of such complaints, the EPA proposed adding the CTS property to the National Priorities List, which would make it eligible for cleanup under the Superfund program. The process begins with a 60-day public-comment period, which ends May 9 (see box, “Speak Up”). The listing is expected to become official this fall, when the EPA publishes its biannual update in the Federal Register.
But the responsible parties weren’t present at the meeting, so angry residents turned the full force of their frustration on the public officials. “We need you to get the toxins out from under the building and the barrels out of the ground,” Judy Selz said bluntly. “Will you do it?”
“You have the authority to protect human life and the environment, and you are choosing not to invoke it,” Durand told the officials. “We have an ongoing release under way. There’s a source that’s migrating. You’re moving to the aftermath phase — remediation.” Pounding his fist on the table, an agitated Durand said: “You’ve missed your mission. You’re catering to the contaminators. You’ve lost the moral authority to act!”
MacQueen went even further, charging that the EPA wants to cover up the site’s history rather than admit the agency’s own role in the chain of events that led to the construction of the housing development known as Southside Village to be built on contaminated former CTS property.
After numerous attempts to bring the discussion back to its intended focus, Remedial Project Manager Samantha Urquhart-Foster admitted that her agency could undertake an emergency-removal action concurrently with the slower Superfund process. She also said the EPA estimates it’s spent about $6 million on the CTS case to date.
But with a cleanup still off in the indefinite future, MacQueen pressed his point, demanding, “Will you advocate for concurrent action?”
“Yes, I will,” Urquhart-Foster replied.
— Direct your local environmental news to Susan Andrew (251-1333, ext. 153, or firstname.lastname@example.org).