A report released today by the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the Inspector General strongly criticizes the agency’s response to contamination at the former CTS of Asheville site. The report asserts that while testing standards were followed, limited oversight, along with poor record-keeping and communication, harmed the effort and failed to communicate the hazards to the public.
“We concluded that the Region’s assessment of drinking water and air quality showed that the Region’s oversight and administration of drinking water sampling and assessment of air quality was limited,” the report reads. “In addition, emergency response actions taken provided limited protection, and communication of sample results was not always clear. As a result, contaminated drinking water wells went undetected, Site risk remains, and the Region’s communications may have misled and confused some residents.”
Further, “we also found that the Region’s recordkeeping practices did not satisfy EPA requirements” and that plans for cleanup and communication “didn’t adequately address current site activities. As a result, the Region may have impeded its ability to effectively respond to and manage community concerns and relationships.”
As one example, the report notes that EPA’s Region 4 — who are overseeing the cleanup along with the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources — didn’t follow up with a well owner who reportedly refused testing in 2006. In 2009, that well was found to have more than 160 times the legal limit of trichloroethylene, one of the main contaminants detected in groundwater near the former electroplating plant.
“Had Region 4 evaluated the completeness of its own well sampling, or conducted better oversight of the 2006 sampling done by [CTS’] contractor, the Region may have known the extent of drinking water contamination earlier.”
Dealing with air contamination, the report also says that a vapor extraction system set up near a contaminated spring failed, and “Area residents will remain at risk from potential TCE exposure through coming into direct contact with contaminated springs and breathing nearby contaminated air.”
Region 4 officials also failed to communicate with residents of the surrounding area in danger from the contamination, the report declares.
“Some letters communicating air sample results were not clear and did not address safety concerns at the Site,” the report reads. “The letters were not consistent with the principles of EPA’s public participation guidance.”
“This complex site is of great interest to the community and poses public health risks,” the inspectors’ report concludes. “We concluded that shortcomings in the Region’s oversight of activities under its authority have been a factor in not detecting some Site contamination until recently. In addition, the Region has not always communicated effectively with the community regarding the safety of drinking water and air around the Site. The Region’s Community Involvement Plan is incomplete; it neither addresses all of the Region’s activities at the Site, nor includes a communication strategy. The Region also had inconsistent recordkeeping practices.”
It suggests that Region 4 focus on a smooth transition of the cleanup operations to the state, or on declaring the abandoned plant a Superfund site:
These shortcomings impede the Region’s ability to effectively respond to and manage community concerns. Region 4’s completion of its response work at the Site will neither remedy remaining Site contamination, nor mitigate potential future risks. The Region must be proactive in developing a clear plan to transition the Site to the State.”
Region 4’s performance has long been a subject of harsh criticism from residents and activists, who’ve accused it of incompetence and an unwillingness to face or deal with the full extent of the contamination.
According to the report, the response from the office Region 4’s acting director is that it “will do everything within our authority to ensure the safety of the residents in the Mills Gap area.”
— David Forbes, staff writer