At a kitchen table in the Mills Gap Road community in south Asheville last night, residents who live near the former CTS of Asheville plant met to plan their next steps. Recently, two residential wells tested positive for industrial contaminants, including cyanide. It’s not known whether this latest indication of contamination is linked to CTS, which operated an electroplating facility on Mills Gap Road until 1986.
But the findings — combined with the announcement that the Elkhardt, Ind.-based company has signed a new agreement with the U.S Environmental Protection Agency — had one resident, Lori Murphy, remark, “It’s like letting the criminal clean up the crime scene.” Murphy’s well tested positive some time ago for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, a large class of chemicals that include the breakdown products of TCE, a known cancer-causing agent and one of the chemicals used by CTS at the old plant.
Buncombe County resident Tate MacQueen‘s family uses one of the wells that recently tested positive for contamination. For the past few years, MacQueen has been outspoken about the CTS case, advocating for the site to be cleaned up and the company held responsible. He has also criticized local, state and federal officials for how the case has been handled. Some neighbors have suffered serious health complaints over the years, including brain tumors and other cancers.
The new agreement, known as an Administrative Order and Settlement Agreement on Consent, calls for more tests that the EPA says are needed to develop a cleanup plan at the CTS site. The company is also required to submit a plan to assess chemical vapor intrusion into private dwellings in the area by March 11. The company has agreed to provide whole-house water filtration to all homes within a one-mile radius of the recently demolished plant; but neighbors say they were anticipating municipal water hookups.
And in a recent email from an EPA staffer to CTS neighbor Dan Murphy, there’s the suggestion they may have awhile to wait for that solution. “I understand that you want CTS or EPA to connect your home to the municipal water supply,” says EPA’s Samantha Urquhart-Foster in the email, but “that may or may not be the final remedy selected a few years from now when we complete the remedial investigation and feasibility study process.” In the email, Urquhart-Foster explains that the filtration system CTS has agreed to provide area residents “is much better than the current activity of only sampling and reporting.”
“These people have no soul,” said Aaron Penland, another long-term activist on the case, referring to EPA staffers who have failed to mount anything that resembles a swift emergency response. That’s the crux of residents’ ongoing complaint: The agencies charged with protecting human health and the environment have failed to launch a cleanup at the proposed Superfund site, and instead propose yet another round of testing and several years to develop a cleanup plan, which they hope would be conducted by CTS.
In a home less than a mile from the old plant, where a 9-acre plot is fenced off and Buncombe County officials recently tore down the remaining buildings, Lori Murphy and her husband live with their adult daughter and her baby. Murphy’s family has been urged by their local pediatrician not to use the home’s tap water to mix the baby’s formula. “This problem has become that well-known,” Murphy told those around the table, adding that the family takes “military showers” with the water, turning the tap on and off to minimize exposure during rinsing.
“This is about safe water,” MacQueen said, as he outlined a proposal to launch a “city water now campaign” in the Mills Gap community, complete with congressional visits, yard signs and regular newsletters delivered to all residents within the one-mile radius defined in the agreement between CTS and the EPA.
But it’s not clear that such a campaign would meet with success in Buncombe County, where sentiments against anything that is perceived as a precursor to annexation by the City of Asheville run deep; and then there’s the cost of providing all those water hookups. Estimates for that vary widely, but all run in the millions of dollars.
To view a timeline of the CTS case, click here. For more on the history of the CTS case, see www.mountainx.com/cts. 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.