Buncombe County will consider all legal avenues as part of a push to get toxic chemicals cleaned up at the former CTS site on Mills Gap Road in Skyland, according to a motion approved at the Buncombe County Board of Comissioners’ Nov. 6 meeting. After emerging from a closed session with County Attorney Joe Connolly, board members, led by Commissioner David Gantt, outlined the county’s commitment to addressing the problems at the former industrial site, where lingering toxins in the soil and ground water are continuing to spread.
For months, neighboring residents, concerned about their health and property values, have been clamoring for help from the commissioners. Those efforts culminated in an Oct. 29 meeting at which representatives of both the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources and the EPA answered audience members’ questions.
But judging by the public comment at the Board of Commissioners meeting, the forum produced more questions than answers, and members of the public remain up in arms. Mary McGraw, who worked at the electroplating plant for 20 years and attributes a number of her health problems to her exposure to toxic chemicals at the facility, spoke with frustration about what she sees as a lax, do-nothing attitude on the county’s part. “Is somebody going to do something?” she asked. “I am just sick of it. I am just sick of government that doesn’t get anything done.”
Mills Gap Road resident Robert Aversano called for nothing short of a federal investigation of the site, adding that this would require a show of will on the commissioners’ part. “We need the FBI to lift up the rock, find out where the criminality is, and drag out the sleaze that has poisoned the people of Buncombe County,” he declared. “Our federal representatives are the only ones who can put that kind of pressure on.” The fact that the plume of toxic wastes at the site has been allowed to persist and spread, said Aversano, “is an outrage.”
“This monstrosity has been along Mills Gap Road for years, and the county has not initiated a lawsuit against the state of North Carolina,” he said. “How can this be?”
CTS, based in Elkhart, Ind., closed its Skyland plant in 1986. A 44-acre portion of the property was sold in 1997 to make way for Southside Village, a condominium complex. In 1999, well sampling at the site revealed high levels of contaminants, including toxins in one residential well.
Last year, under an agreement involving the company, Mills Gap Road Associates and the EPA, CTS installed a system to extract hazardous vapors from the soil. But testing has also found contaminated springs at the site, which will not be addressed by the vapor-extraction system.
Board of Commissioners Chair Nathan Ramsey tried to soothe people’s anger, but they were not placated. “We fully understand why people are frustrated and scared,” said Ramsey. “One of the problems in the past is that not enough testing was done to make sure that the toxic plume has not spread, and to give people the assurance that they’re drinking safe water.”
Health Director Vicki Ittel announced that her department will offer free well-testing to any area resident who requests it. But residents say they want more than tests: They want a solution.
“We are not talking about a surface cleanup,” said Southside Village resident Therese Figuera. “We have to have a thorough action plan, a thorough, so that we residents know when we can feel safe again.”
Fruits of their labors
Maj. Scott Bissinger of the Buncombe County Sheriff’s Office updated the board on the county’s inmate-labor program. Thus far in 2007, he said, the county has saved $460,000 by using captive workers at the county landfill, in the detention center’s kitchen and to clean the Sheriff’s Office headquarters.
Sheriff Van Duncan summed up his first year in office. The average response time for “priority” and “priority 1” calls—critical situations that could involve loss of life—has been cut from 12.4 minutes to 10.6 minutes, despite a 20 percent increase in call volume over the past 12 months. Duncan called the figure “a good benchmark.” There were five homicides in the county this past year, “which is not a good thing to report,” he noted, but four of those cases resulted in convictions; the fourth is part of an ongoing federal investigation.
BCAT—the Buncombe County Anti-Crime Task Force—is “up and going,” said the sheriff, with Black Mountain and Woodfin as partners. All told, 227 charges have been levied against 123 suspects; 90 percent were drug charges, and the rest were for firearm possession. Since Duncan took office, $1.1 million worth of drugs were seized. The county is also increasing its vigilance of gang activity, said Duncan.
Next, URTV Executive Director Pat Garlinghouse gave a synopsis of activities at the county’s public-access channel. (See sidebar, “Screen Gems.”)
Western Highlands Network CEO Arthur Carder reported on his agency’s current status. Because of action by the General Assembly last year, Western Highlands now contracts with the Virginia-based ValueOptions to handle the agency’s Medicaid accounting.
Western Highlands, which coordinates mental-health care and related services for an eight-county area in Western North Carolina, served 2,750 indigent clients in the past year. “That does not count the Medicaid consumer,” he said.
Carder said that 644 patients have been treated at Broughton Hospital in Morganton during the past year. “We really do need to work on trying to bring that number down,” he said.
Nevertheless, he said, “It’s been a year now” since the closing of New Vistas-Mountain Laurel, a “safety-net” care provider, “and we don’t have chaos in the streets. I think our system is stable today, much more stable than it was a year ago.”
The diversity of local providers, he said, has enabled Western Highlands to offer individuals more specialized care.
Gaps remain, he acknowledged, particularly in treating individuals with both substance-abuse problems and mental-health conditions. “We have less providers to meet those needs,” he said. The region also needs to do a better job of providing mental-health care in the schools, noted Carder.
The bridges of Buncombe County
Buncombe County Stormwater Administrator Mike Goodson gave an update on the I-26 Design Oversight Committee’s progress. The commissioners appointed Goodson and Chris Eller to the committee in August.
Goodson said the Figg Engineering Group has been hired to weigh the merits of the Asheville Design Center’s alternative to the state Department of Transportation’s proposed routes for the bridge realignment.
“I’m hopeful that Figg can find solutions that address the concerns of the North Carolina Department of Transportation and have the alternative included in its selection process,” he said.
A decision, said Goodson, should be reached “hopefully by the first of the year.”
The next meeting of the Buncombe County Board of Commissioners is slated for Tuesday, Nov. 20, in Room 204 of the county courthouse, beginning with public comment at 4 p.m.