- County purchases Carolina First building to use for court office space
- Commissioners move forward on zoning, flood control
- County pondering $21 million partnership with Health Adventure
It wasn't on the agenda, but the issue of contamination from the former CTS of Asheville factory came roaring back at the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners' Oct. 6 meeting. County residents who live near the Mills Gap Road site implored commissioners to extend municipal water lines to protect people in the area from potentially contaminated well water, and blasted the response of state and federal agencies to the problem.
Area residents assert that the contamination is spreading and that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (which oversees above-ground cleanup efforts) and the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (which deals with below-ground contamination) have been dragging their feet and trying to cover up the extent of the pollution.
Groundwater contamination from trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, has been an issue for years, with some wells and streams near the site testing far above the safe limits for TCE exposure. Although a 2001 EPA report identified the site as an "imminent hazard" in danger of spreading, cleanup efforts have been limited to extracting some of the toxic vapors. Much to the frustration of residents and activists, no attempt has been made to dig up potentially contaminated soil or find and remove the source of the toxins.
In 2007, the county paid for municipal water lines to be run to the Oaks subdivision. In August, tests on a well on Chapel Hill Church Road came back with results of 850 parts per billion of TCE — 168 times the 5 ppb that the EPA has set as the maximum allowed for drinking water. Municipal water was immediately extended to that residence, but residents are calling on the county to extend city water lines to the entire area.
"I believe that it is vital that all the residents of the Chapel Hill Church Road area receive city water as soon as possible before other wells test above the allowed limit for TCE," Patricia Penner said. "I have a 5-year-old son and I'm concerned for his health and safety."
She also asserted that the county needs to take steps to quickly solve the problem itself.
"We the people of Buncombe, including yourselves, need to make a stand. Have CTS come back, tear up this eyesore of a plant, dig up the ground, take away any waste there. Let's not count on anyone from Raleigh or Atlanta to do this. Let's take care of ourselves and our own. I don't want to hear about my friends and family getting sick while this toxic waste spreads."
Aaron Penland harshly criticized the EPA and DENR's response.
"Why wasn't the property between the Oaks subdivision and CTS tested? Right now it seems like they're spending more time and money trying to disprove the fact that CTS is the contaminant source," Penland said, before calling on the county to take a more active role. "Ask for the transparency that the [EPA] inspector general said we would get. There is no trust; there is no faith; there is no transparency. This continues to spread."
Commissioner Holly Jones said she sympathized with the residents' anger.
"I would feel like all of you if I lived where you did," Jones said. "You come to every meeting, and I think we're open. If you tell us where we've been negligent and haven't gone forward, I want to make it right. We have to look at all the data about the Chapel Hill Church Road situation. You're frustrated; we're frustrated as can be."
Chair David Gantt noted that state and federal laws constrain the county's power to intervene, but that he would try to arrange a meeting between the residents, county staff and the county attorney.
"We've done some things. Why don't we have some county employees meet with you, then come back and talk about what we can and can't do?" Gantt suggested. "There's a lot of can't-dos here. That's how the jurisdiction is set up. We do have a framework we have to work under."
County Attorney Michael Frue said that the county's policy on extending water lines requires there to be a "qualified or bona fide public health threat" as identified by an agency such as the EPA, DENR or the county health department.
Bricks and mortar
Insufficient office space for court offices has been a long-standing problem as Buncombe tries to fit the increasing demands of the justice system into the aging courthouse. The county is seeking relief by purchasing a 50,000-foot office building at 300 College St. The building, just across the street from the courthouse, now contains a Carolina First bank, a Jersey Mike's sandwich shop and Oppenheimer & Co., a stock brokerage.
The county already owns the land the building sits on and, according to County Manager Wanda Greene, plans to keep the current tenants. By putting some of its offices in the building, the county won't have to lease as much space elsewhere. The building will cost $9.5 million to purchase — money the county will borrow — but Greene noted that with reduced rental expenditures and the revenue from current tenants, the county would make more than enough to pay the debt.
The commissioners approved the purchase 4-0 (Commissioner Bill Stanley was absent for medical reasons).
Most of the board's votes at the meeting were also geared to land and buildings, including four that set public hearings for its November meetings.
The board voted 4-0 to hold a public hearing on Nov. 17 for bringing back zoning. In March, the N.C. Court of Appeals struck down the county's 2007 zoning ordinance, ruling that the public had insufficient notice before the measure was approved. In recent months the county Planning Board, along with the Limestone and Beaverdam community councils, has been reviewing zoning maps with an eye toward eliminating potential legal challenges.
On Nov. 3 the county will hold a public hearing to review its flood ordinances, as well as one on helping Health Adventure build a health and science learning facility on Broadway Street in Asheville. Through the Buncombe County Industrial Facilities Pollution Control Financing Authority, the county may issue up to $21 million in bonds to the Health Adventure to cover the costs of the center's construction. The county will have no liability on the bonds.
If all that wasn't enough to take into account, the commissioners also voted 4-0 to consider taking on a package of bonds at the Nov. 3 meeting, relating to purchase of the Carolina First building and constructing two middle schools.