When the stacks come down

Two smokestacks synonymous with the American Enka plant around which the town was built are scheduled for demolition in the coming weeks, sparking worries about asbestos and other chemicals—which inspectors say are unfounded—and concerns about the loss of a historical landmark.

Standing up for the stacks: Citizen activist and Enka resident Jerry Rice says the Enka smokestacks should stay up for health and historic reasons. Photo By Jonathan Welch

The plant, built in 1928 by a Dutch corporation, manufactured rayon and later nylon and provided jobs to many people in the community. The town derives its very name from the sound of the abbreviation of the original Dutch company (Nederlandsche Kunstziidefabriek). The plant, which is in the process of being closed down and now has just a skeleton maintenance crew, is currently owned by a subsidiary of BASF, a German chemical company.

Enka resident Jerry Rice fears that the stacks, which stand roughly eight stories tall and are in close proximity to several schools, might contain asbestos or other toxic materials. “My big concerns are asbestos and the public not being notified in a timely manner,” he says. “Asbestos is so light and it can travel so far that people will never know they’ve been harmed by it for years to come.”

Not so, according to Michael Matthews, an air-quality engineer for the WNC Regional Air Quality Agency.

“There’s been a full and complete inspection done, [and] there’s no asbestos in the smokestacks,” Matthews says. “There is some asbestos in some of the piping elsewhere in the plant, and that’s being dealt with by the demolition company.”

The demolition, in the hands of the D.H. Griffin Wrecking Company, was originally scheduled for Oct. 30, but was delayed. The company has not set a firm date for the demolition, according to Brian Alexander, who heads up D.H. Griffin’s Asheville office. “We’ve not set a date yet, we’re still doing a lot of site prep and getting down to the nitty-gritty,” he says. “We’ll know more after Thanksgiving.”

The company will demolish just the smokestacks, and not any of the rest of the plant.

Alexander also confirmed that there is no asbestos in the smokestacks, but that there is some in parts of the nearby piping. The company is currently disposing of that asbestos as part of preparing the site. “That’s part of what’s taking a little more time—we’re making sure we’ve got a clean bill of health here,” he says.

End of an era

Rice also complains that the current timeframe has not given the community enough time to respond. “They can say all they want to about safety, but the questions is still: Why hasn’t the public really been informed?” he says. “I don’t think it’s being taken as seriously as it should be because this is a private site.”

Even without any asbestos, Rice says that with such an extensively used factory site, there are other worries as well. “This was an industrial site, [and] they’ve known it had all kinds of toxins and contaminants over the years, yet they put A-B Tech [Enka campus] here,” he said. “They need to be careful what they do here.”

Concerns about air quality aren’t the only problem, he says, adding that many Enka residents have close ties to the plant—and that the smokestacks should stay up for historical reasons.

“Here we’re blowing down something of significance—and we could preserve it if we wanted to,” Rice says. “When it was put in here, it was one of the largest plants this side of Charlotte. Thousands of people have worked here.”

He notes that one way the plant has left its mark is the many houses that were originally built for the plant’s workers.

“You can talk to anyone who’s lived here in Enka, and some of their kinfolks have worked here at some point in time,” he comments. “I hear stories all the time about what the Enka plant did for people. It helped them send their kids through college and get a good education. It was the life at that time.”

Rice says he has contacted the North Carolina State Historic Preservation Office to see if there was a way to get the smokestacks added to the historical registry.

He adds that he’s heard “that they’re going to put up a Wal-Mart or something like that.” (At press time, BASF had not responded to requests for comment about the reason for the demolition or future plans for the site.)

Matthews, too, sounds a note of regret. “My father worked in that plant for 40 years,” he says. “I’ll be sorry to see them come down.” At the same time, he notes that there is little that can be done, since the site is privately owned. “They’ve gotten all their permits and everything’s been verified. A lot of people have been asking us about that, but if a private company wants to demolish this, [and] they meet all the criteria and all their permits are in order, then that’s the end of our involvement.”

Still, Rice hopes that it’s not over for the smokestacks. “If we can get it delayed, and people in this community found out about it, they would be outraged,” he concludes.


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