The U.S. Fourth Circuit of Appeals has ruled in favor of 23 local citizens pressing to get CTS Corp. to clean up the contaminated site on Mills Gap Road in south Asheville and compensate affected homeowners. Their case could now go to trial or move up to the U.S. Supreme Court, says Tate MacQueen, a Buncombe resident who helped get the property declared a federal Superfund site in 2011.
About three years ago, the residents filed a complaint against CTS, which operated an electroplating plant on the site for several decades and is blamed for contaminating soil, ground-water supplies and streams with such known carcinogens as trichloroethylene (the same chemical involved at Marine base Camp LeJeune). Based on a state rule, a lower court ruled against the residents, saying it had been more than 10 years since the contamination occurred and was discovered, MacQueen explains.
CTS closed the plant in 1986; contamination was documented by 1990; but it wasn’t until 2009 that two of the property owners in the suit — David Bradley and Renee Richardson — learned that their well water also showed unsafe levels of TCE and other toxins linked to company disposal practices at the facility (see “Off Target,” July 13, 2010, Xpress). Twenty-one of their neighbors joined in the suit, which failed at the district level.
The Appeals Court overturned that decision, voting 2-1 in the residents’ favor, finding that federal law intended to give relief from contamination, even though the danger might remain hidden for many years, trumped the state limitation.
“Our decision here will likely raise the ire of corporations and other entities that wish to rest in the security of statutes of repose, free from the threat of being called to account for their contaminating acts,” the ruling reads.
Although many affected residents are now on municipal water, they continue to face serious health problems and some feel that they can’t sell their homes and property, says MacQueen, who has been involved in the case since learning about it after a July 2007 Xpress investigation (see “Fail Safe?”). Wells in the schoolteacher’s own neighborhood, less than a mile from the site, have tested positive for TCE in recent years.
MacQueen, who has been a vocal critic of local, state and federal agencies involved in the case, says, “It’s always been about [uncovering] the truth about what CTS did with its waste and the impacts of that toxic waste.”
Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources (POWER) — a local group also involved in the fight against CTS — released a statement on the decision, emphasizing, “Contaminants continue to migrate from the site, [and we believe] the court’s decision to be of utmost import in holding CTS Corp. accountable for its contamination. … POWER sincerely hopes that this decision will lead to much higher degrees of corporate accountability when it comes to toxic contamination.”
— additional reporting by David Forbes