NC lawmakers hear testimony from DENR, CTS neighbors on contamination case

Tim Moffitt greets Mills Gap residents before the start of yesterday’s hearing in Raleigh. Photos by Susan Andrew.

In a stark white, no-frills hearing room in Raleigh Tuesday, Jan. 17, Rep. Tim Moffitt chaired the first of several sessions of the newly formed North Carolina House Select Committee to Investigate the Handling of the CTS Contamination Site.

Rep. Moffitt lives and maintains his office on Sweeten Creek Road, not far from the CTS site. Before the hearing started, Moffitt told Xpress that the property is served by well water. And while that well is among those sampled quarterly by the state, it has never registered any “hits” for contaminants.

As for Mills Gap-area wells that have been contaminated, however, Moffitt said: “There’s no question who the polluter is. … CTS is the polluter; CTS bears the ultimate responsibility” for the cleanup.

“But we pay our tax dollars to the government,” he continued. “Those dollars are separated from us under the guise of safety, providing us clean water and clean air. … I’m amazed at the dollars invested in what I would consider unimportant updates to [state] buildings in lieu of more pressing issues like cleaning up the groundwater at existing, known hazardous waste sites.

“This is by no means a witch hunt of the [state] Department of the Environment and Natural Resources,” he continued, just minutes before he picked up the gavel to open the hearing. “This is an issue of prioritizing the role of government. If there’s ground water being contaminated, what other priority is there?

“We’re peeling back the curtain on the operations of state government. I appreciate the state’s obstacles; I think the state has opportunities to leap over some of these obstacles, without catching people in the cross fire. … DENR’s an important agency, and they have an important role to fill, but are they accomplishing that role?”

As staff from the state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources huddled in the far back corner, and an audience of perhaps 30 looked on — including about a dozen Asheville-area residents who came to witness the proceedings — Moffitt opened the meeting. He and committee members like Rep. Chuck McGrady, Henderson County, questioned DENR officials and heard from residents who live near the former CTS electroplating facility on Mills Gap Road. The plant is the presumed source of soil and ground-water contamination from the same chemicals CTS Corp. used and allegedly dumped at the facility in the community south of Asheville. One of those chemicals is trichloroethylene, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has recognized as causing cancer.

“I’m appalled,” said Rep. Mitchell Setzer, a Republican committee member from Catawba County. After viewing images of a drainage system observers say was used to funnel hazardous waste from plant operations into the soil and ground water of neighboring property, Setzer noted that his family business manufactures the same type of corrugated metal pipes. He said it appeared the drainage pipes were so corroded their contents would have been seeping into the surrounding soil.

The images were part of a three-and-a-half-hour slide presentation documenting the history of the case and its mishandling by local, state and federal officials. Said Buncombe resident Tate MacQueen, who presented the history, “I hope you will take a close look at the handling of this site, and that this will be the impetus for a renewed focus on doing it right. Too much time has elapsed.” A longtime advocate for getting the site cleaned up, he urged, “Let’s stop the charade, and get serious about doing the cleanup, and billing CTS for it.”

As the meeting continued, committee member Rep. Mitch Gillespie asked DENR staff how much cleanup might cost.

Dexter Matthews, director of the Division of Waste Management for DENR and the most senior DENR official now overseeing the case, replied that a cost estimate is not yet available, as the EPA will be generating that estimate as part of the anticipated Superfund process.

Gillespie then asked if there could be a change in state statutes so that notices about environmental contamination could be made earlier in the process of real estate transfers. Matthews encouraged lawmakers to consider changing real estate laws to require such disclosures, adding that DENR could be involved at the time such notices were to be removed from a property deed, perhaps indicating that clean up was completed.

Rep. Bill Brawley of Mecklenberg County, who is not on the committee, noted that Moffitt has been talking about this case since he came into office last year and made the effort to line up the votes needed to create the special committee. Brawley had some choice words about DENR for those in the hearing room: “Never attribute to malfeasance an act that is significantly explained by human stupidity,” he said, adding that the case represents “a bureaucratic mess … We really don’t have a structure designed to deal with a problem like this.”

Brawley said he believes the committee intends to “take action and not be constrained by too much analysis paralysis. I think we all agree we don’t need another report. We just need to clean this up.”

Buncombe County Rep. Patsy Keever also attended the hearing, although she is not a member of the select committee.

Dot Rice was the last speaker to have the floor. Her family’s homes lie a few hundred feet downhill from the CTS property, and their domestic water came from a spring found to be contaminated with high levels of toxic chemicals used at the plant, including TCE. Numerous family members — many who used the water for decades before learning it was contaminated — have suffered incapacitating health problems, including brain tumors. “I’ve always wondered what my family would have been like if they had come to test our place first,” Rice said. “Our family has lost a lot financially, and we’ve lost loved ones and friends. I’m hoping now we can push forward together and get our community cleaned up.”

After the meeting, MacQueen and others say they can’t rule out malfeasance on the part of some officials within the agencies charged with protecting human health and the environment. MacQueen’s presentation cited evidence that officials passed over numerous opportunities to act, allowing the case to be punted from one agency to another. “You get some wiggle room for screw-ups,” he said, “but not for efforts to cover up your screw-ups. Objective No. 1 should have been, clean up the source. They spent more money and energy on hiding the consequences of their screw-ups than on doing that critical job.”

Last March, the EPA proposed adding the property to its National Priorities List. If approved, the classification would place the site among the most contaminated in the nation. The history of alleged chemical dumping at CTS, and its impact on the surrounding community, are profiled in a comprehensive timeline, covering events and documents going back some five decades, recently compiled by Mills Gap cancer survivor and Xpress intern Gabe Dunsmith.

For more stories about the contamination and the longtime efforts to deal with it, click here.


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