Buncombe Commissioners

  • Sheriff’s Office reports increased calls for service, decreased response time
  • County still working on reinstating zoning

Tensions ran high at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners’ April 21 meeting.

Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources were there to talk about ongoing efforts to clean up the heavily contaminated former CTS of Asheville site—and defend a proposal by DENR (see “Fail-safe?” July 11, 2007 Xpress, and the “Green Scene” elsewhere in this issue).

“This is not a settlement agreement or a limiting document, it’s an acknowledgment that CTS will propose a remedial plan to clean up the site in accordance with the requirements of the law,” hydrogeologist Bruce Parris of DENR’s Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch told the commissioners. “For efficiency’s sake, a proposed administrative agreement has been made available to the public.”

We’ve had enough: Mills Gap Road resident Tate McQueen, left, criticizes federal, state and local officials’ handling of the CTS cleanup while holding a graphic showing cancer victims within 1.5 miles of the site. Resident Aaron Penland stands on the right. Photo by Jonathan Welch

Parris also said that more testing is needed to “accurately determine the extent of the contamination.”

But residents who live near the Mills Gap Road site also turned out in force—clad in black in memory of relatives and friends they say died or became ill due to contaminants dumped by CTS—and they weren’t buying it.

“It’s an issue of trust,” declared resident Tate McQueen during his own presentation to the board, noting, “Time and time again we’ve been in these meetings.

“When CTS was first making noise about its adverse effects in the community,” said McQueen, a local educator, “I was 19 years old; I’m 42 now. In that time we’ve had study after study, and we’ve had no significant tangible result. When we enter into agreements with CTS, we need to know who we’re dealing with.”

CTS closed its electroplating plant in 1986, and ever since, the residents have had to grapple with the impacts of trichloroethylene, an industrial solvent and suspected carcinogen, though the contamination wasn’t officially documented until the early ‘90s.

Also at issue is the fact that the state’s 1987 voluntary-cleanup law caps participating companies’ liability at $3 million. Given CTS’ history, McQueen asserts, the Elkhart, Ind.-based manufacturer can’t be trusted to fully clean up the site or prevent the contamination from continuing to spread.

But CTS committed to a voluntary remediation in a 2007 agreement with DENR; the current proposal merely spells out some parameters for the plan the company is supposed to create and implement.

An imminent hazard?

Parris maintained that the $3 million limit has never interfered with a company’s carrying out a full cleanup. “That amount doesn’t include costs of investigation and it doesn’t preclude a civil lawsuit or getting other responsible parties to pay for the cleanup,” he noted.

But McQueen was not impressed. “Our state is bending over backward to help CTS, almost two decades after the first studies were done,” he charged. The contamination, said McQueen, has caused him to move his family from their home to a small apartment outside the area.

Aaron Penland, an area resident who says he’s lost at least nine close family members to cancer after they’d drunk from local wells for many years, stood behind McQueen brandishing signs. One showed a 2004 EPA report that called the site “an imminent hazard”; another displayed a map showing 70 cases of cancer within 1.5 miles of the site. A 2008 study conducted by the N.C. Central Cancer Registry at Xpress’ request proved inconclusive, but it looked at all homes within a 1-mile radius of the site, rather than focusing on those situated along possible paths of contamination.

Residents and the county-appointed CTS Citizens Monitoring Council are circulating a petition rejecting DENR’s proposal and say they’ve already gathered 1,000 signatures.

EPA staffer Carolyn Callihan said more testing is being done to find out if the contamination has spread. Activists, however, have criticized the methodology, arguing that not enough wells are being checked, and that the tests should be performed by a third party in order to ensure accurate results.

Callihan admitted that the EPA’s results “aren’t very user-friendly” but said the agencies are doing their best determine the extent of the contamination, both above- and below-ground, and prevent it from spreading.

She said the EPA is working to get the site on its Superfund list but hasn’t yet found enough evidence to justify it. “Other than The Oaks subdivision, we have found no new sites of contamination that can be attributed to CTS,” noted Callihan. “We found some lead in wells in the last round, but we think that’s attributable to plumbing, not CTS.”

McQueen, however, countered that a privately conducted test paid for by the owners of the adjacent Rice property had shown a considerable increase in the level of contamination since it was first tested. This, he maintained, could indicate that it was spreading.

“We’re passionate, but so is life and death,” said McQueen. “We’re concerned about the ground-water spread, because there’s 397 wells within three miles of this site.”

Furthermore, although the EPA required CTS to install a system to extract hazardous fumes from a portion of the property, he maintained that to date, the cleanup efforts have done nothing to deal with the primary source of contamination—perhaps located under or near the abandoned factory.

McQueen also questioned the company’s credibility. “They were generating 52,800 tons of organic compounds—that’s what TCE is—a year,” he said, adding, “How can you possibly trust CTS? How can you possibly trust this organization? It doesn’t make any sense.

“We, your citizens and constituents, don’t want to see a voluntary agreement. We want to see the agencies do their job and immediately clean up the site—without regard to cost or further study.”

But the officials remained silent concerning what would be done about the primary source of contamination.

The commissioners, meanwhile, had collected written questions from the audience. And with time running short, Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt said the board would get responses to the remaining questions by e-mail and post the answers on the county’s Web site.

Activists, however, weren’t the only ones who were upset. After federal and state officials’ hourlong presentation, Vice Chair Bill Stanley cut to the chase, saying, “My one question is this: Are you going to clean it up?”

And when Parris began to talk about the remediation process, Stanley cut him off. “Are you going to make CTS clean it up or not? Are you going to do it?” he continued, to applause from the audience.

“We’re in the process of holding them accountable under the law,” answered Parris.

Other business

The board also heard Sheriff Van Duncan‘s annual report, which noted both an increase in calls for service and a reduction in response time.

“In 2008 we saw calls for service continue to rise, to 54,600 from 51,625,” Duncan told the board. “The good news with that is that our average response time for emergency calls—those that could be life-threatening—they were just a little under 11 minutes in 2007. In 2008, through the hard work of the Patrol Division, we were able to pull that down to 9.25 minutes.”

The sheriff also touted his office’s success in criminal investigations, resolving about half of them (1,585 of 3,172). “The state average is to clear around 20 percent,” he said. “We’re clearing 50 percent.”

In other business, the commissioners heard a brief update on their attempts to reinstate countywide zoning after an N.C. Court of Appeals ruling struck down the county’s zoning ordinance recently. The judge ruled that the commissioners hadn’t allowed enough time for the county Planning Board to consider the step and had failed to provide proper notice of a public hearing on the matter.

The Planning Board is still assessing the zoning maps, and meanwhile, the commissioners must also vote separately on zoning for Limestone and Beaverdam townships.

Those areas voluntarily acquired zoning long before the county’s ordinance was passed, and the zoning maps for those townships were folded into the county’s maps when the ordinance was approved in 2007. Now, with countywide zoning in limbo for some months until the commissioners can legally reinstate it, they’re hoping to at least get the Limestone and Beaverdam zoning back on the books.

As a result, they unanimously voted to continue their meeting to Tuesday, April 28, at 4:30 p.m., when they’ll hold a special vote to uphold the Limestone and Beaverdam zoning.


Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.