NC House committee issues subpoenas to compel EPA officials to testify on CTS

A North Carolina House Select Committee has issued subpoenas to compel key officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, including Superfund Branch Chief Don Rigger, to testify in a hearing in Raleigh next month, even as Mills Gap residents file a formal complaint of criminal negligence against the agency regarding its handling of the contamination case at the former CTS of Asheville in Mills Gap.

Meanwhile, yet another Mills Gap household received an emergency supply of bottled water, courtesy of the EPA. In December, quarterly sampling of a domestic well at 5 Forest Run Drive, off Pinner’s Cove Road, revealed levels of toxic chemicals above state standards. Samantha Urquhart-Foster, Remedial Project Manager at EPA, told Xpress that a subsequent test of the well found that the level of the industrial chemical pentachlorophenol had fallen below the “actionable” level, but homeowner Judie Adams tells Xpress that EPA will continue providing bottled water to the occupants renting her home, at least until results are in for the next quarterly water test in March.

No one can say for sure what the source of the contamination is in this most-recently affected residence, but agency tests show that groundwater near the former CTS plant on Mills Gap Road is contaminated with the same chemicals allegedly dumped at the plant until it closed in 1986, including pentachlorophenol, and area residents are demanding action.

Early this year, Rep. Tim Moffitt formed the North Carolina House Select Committee to Investigate the Handling of the CTS Contamination Site, which has just issued the subpoenas to compel EPA staffers who have worked on the case to provide sworn testimony in a hearing in Raleigh planned for next month.

The EPA was invited to attend the committee’s first hearing in January, but was noticeably absent. Now, Mills Gap community spokesman Tate MacQueen says his group has filed a formal complaint of criminal negligence, claiming that EPA staff engaged in a conspiracy to commit fraud, reckless endangerment, and willful neglect that has allowed environmental contaminants allegedly released at the plant, including the cancer-causing agents TCE and vinyl chloride, to spread deep into the underground aquifer that supplies local wells.

Ground-water contamination eventually reached levels high enough to trigger the site’s nomination to EPA’s Superfund list, but neighbors say that the agency delayed making that nomination by failing to include soil and air tests that would have triggered action much sooner. The first contaminated drinking water was documented by state officials in 1990 on the Rice family property next door to the now-demolished plant; but the family did not receive emergency water supplies until 1999. Numerous family members have become gravely ill, suffering from brain tumors and other conditions; MacQueen tells Xpress that the one-mile area surrounding the plant recently marked its 50th case of non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

To view a timeline of the CTS case, click here. For more on the history of the CTS case, see Mountain Xpress first covered this story in 2007, when residents brought to light the extent of the contamination (see “Fail Safe?” July 11, 2007 For the latest articles on the CTS contamination, click here.


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