A foul mess

The fast-rising floodwaters weren’t the only thing that surprised Asheville residents. Many, like Billy Hagen, were shocked to smell and see evidence of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of gallons of fuel and other toxic liquids that spilled into WNC rivers during the massive flooding that occurred as a result of Hurricane Frances.

As the storm clouds cleared and the waters slowly receded, tenants and owners of flood-ravaged buildings confronted not only mud and muck, but the legacy of oil, gas, diesel, kerosene, solvents and other toxic liquids that had spilled from all sorts of containers. Giant holding tanks the size of silos, propane tanks looking like miniature submarines, and hundreds of metal drums with unknown contents created a foul flotsam in the floodplain. The liquids emanating from them created an oil slick that made its way downstream in the direction of Knoxville and other towns, whose residents are part of an estimated 1 million people who draw their drinking water from the French Broad River.

The stench of fuel still lingers — as do many unanswered questions about liability and governmental decision-making with regard to floodplain regulations, engineering standards and development in flood-prone areas.

Initial inquiries made by this reporter regarding the spill were met with confusing responses from officials, who, in the midst of responding to the emergencies at hand, were unclear about jurisdiction and who should answer such questions.

The quantity of escaped contaminants is “difficult to assess, but [is] in excess of 100,000 gallons,” explained Buncombe County Hazardous Waste Manager and Environmental Inspector Denese Ballew.

Ballew noted that clean-up crews had found five 30,000-gallon fuel tanks, two 20,000 gallon tanks, 250 55-gallon drums, 75 home-heating fuel tanks, and dozens of propane tanks of various sizes. The majority of those tanks were found between the Western North Carolina Nature Center and Biltmore Avenue, she said.

Tanks a lot

Asheville firefighters worked around the clock to corral and secure tanks and containers, Fire Chief Greg Grayson reported. Working alongside his department were members of other fire departments from around the state, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, private contractors and the U.S. Coast Guard.

As to how full those tanks were prior to the flood, Ballew said, “We have no way of knowing. There’s not a way of calculating. … Nobody has been able to give us how many gallons they had, so we don’t have any good numbers.”

She went on to say, “It’s fair to say that all of the tanks we’ve found have been compromised, if not totally leaked out. These things were banging up against rocks and bridges, it’s hard to imagine anything surviving that.”

“The entire watershed was destroyed — homes, lives, businesses, habitat,” according to Philip Gibson, riverkeeper for RiverLink, a local nonprofit organization promoting the environmental and economic health of area rivers and communities in their drainage basins. “There was not only the fuel damage, but bank erosion, sedimentation and other environmental impacts as well,” Gibson said, adding, “We won’t know what the impacts are for the area for quite some time.” Gibson’s own offices were damaged in the flood.

Gibson explained that it’s important to remember that the flood’s impact extends beyond Buncombe County. “The rivers are a delivery system and the recipient is the Gulf of Mexico — and right now they’re delivering pollutants and chaos.”

Who allowed this to happen?

A precise and updated floodplain map is an important tool for preventing flood damage. A recent story in the Charlotte Observer reported that, in the wake of 1999’s Hurricane Floyd, the North Carolina legislature authorized “$41 million to update floodplain maps statewide, [and] the Federal Emergency Management Agency chipped in another $38 million.” The article reported that none of that funding reached the western part of the state. State Rep. Wilma Sherrill (R-Asheville), told the Observer, “We said, ‘Hey, look at us, we have flooding too. … [The mapping] needed to be done and it wasn’t done.” Her colleague in the State House, Rep. Trudi Walend (R-Brevard), added “Money for helping the west with flooding has never been a priority. … It is now.”

Asheville’s Flood Protection Ordinance “exceeds the Federal Flood Insurance Program’s requirements,” Asheville City Attorney Bob Oast told Xpress in a Sept. 16 interview. “Our ordinance is very strict.” Oast noted, however, that many of the fuel-distribution businesses in the floodplain that lost tanks “preexisted the ordinance” and had been grandfathered in. He noted that there were also many older buildings in the floodplain “that were built prior to our current code becoming effective, and they could not be built the same way today.” Oast added, “Businesses in these buildings also contributed materials that were swept away in the flood. … There was stuff getting in the river from everywhere. Like any other ordinance, [the Flood Protection Ordinance] grandfathers in certain uses — they can’t expand, however, without meeting [the current] flood regulations.”

After the recovery period, says Riverkeeper Gibson, there will need to be a period of reflection and planning. “This is a great opportunity to understand how development collides with the natural environment and how we can prevent disasters like this from happening. … We need the tools and better decision-making to minimize the impacts on our lives.”

Gibson highlighted the challenges posed by floodplain development saying, “A watershed is like a big bathtub. When you put blocks in the tub, the water rises because you’re adding mass. The more blocks — or buildings, in this case — that you put in, the more that water will rise.”

As for placing fuel tanks in a floodplain, UNCA Professor of Environmental Science Richard Maas commented, “Good sense would indicate you’d keep them out of a floodplain. And if you did have them in a floodplain, you’d have them much better secured. This should have been prevented, and it could have been prevented.”

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