About 50 people gathered at the Skyland Fire Department this afternoon to see an in-depth WLOS report on the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site. Many, residents of the Mills Gap Road area, have lived with the specter of the nearby pollution for more than a decade.
After viewing the report, residents expressed their hope for a clean-up, an investigation into the Environmental Protection Agency’s handling of the matter and the need to press legislators for action. Since 2007, groundwater contamination from the site of the former electroplating plant has become a major issue. Local residents and environmental activists have attacked what they claim is negligence, a lack of transparency and a failure to tackle a major health hazard. Some even alleged a cover-up to hide that EPA officials knew about the contamination and failed to act on it or inform the public for more than a decade while at least two of the most affected families continued to drink the water.
The hour-and-fifteen minute long report, “Buried Secrets,” is the product of six months of work by WLOS investigative reporter Mike Mason and others at the station. It details an account of how trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, leaked through a concrete holding tank in the abandoned plant and eventually into the groundwater below. The report includes interviews with a former CTS manager, Rep. Mark Meadows, UNC Asheville professor Jeff Wilcox and local activist Tate MacQueen, among many others.
It also shows the results of a review of 63,000 pages of documents acquired under a federal Freedom of Information Act request, revealing some EPA officials’ knowledge of contamination dating back to 1990, long before they informed nearby residents. Mason sharply questions EPA staff about negligence and raises concerns about missing records.
“They [the EPA] have dragged this thing on for so long,” Mason told residents after the report was over. “We wanted to create something undeniable…What bothers me is they knew and they knew and they knew and now it’s in the groundwater.”
In an interview recorded in July and included in the report, Meadows criticizes the EPA and says he’ll seek congressional hearings on the issue. For his part, Mason said he’ll keep pressing Meadows.
“My job is to hold him accountable, to say, ‘You saw this, now what are you going to do about it?’”
Residents applauded during commercial breaks. The reception was largely positive, and many of the attendees said they would call and write federal and state legislators to renew the push for action. One woman hoped Mason would take the report “to the President’s desk” if necessary. However, they also expressed concern about other issues, such as possible additional contamination and when they might receive promised municipal water.
One of the families most affected by the contamination, the Rice family, suffered from numerous health issues but agreed to a settlement with CTS in 2005. In the report, Dot Rice talks about the settlement, saying that if she had known the information that became public starting in 2007, she would not have agreed to it, since it limited future legal action against the company.
Nonetheless, 23 residents have sued over the contamination, and won a major victory earlier this year when the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals gave them the right to proceed with the case. CTS appealed the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it’s currently awaiting the court’s review. The EPA also put the site on its Superfund cleanup list last year, but have claimed it will be four to five years before a full cleanup takes place.
Despite their many common efforts over the years, the members of the community have not always agreed about issues like settlements, media attention, or how to deal with CTS and the government agencies involved, and those disagreements have sometimes put them at odds.
Talking to his neighbors and media, MacQueen admitted those divisions have led to a community sometimes “as fractured as the bedrock” below the old plant, even as it faced the same problems.
“That’s something we should all be working towards healing,” he said. “Sometimes I think when situations are raw like this, it can cause people to work themselves away from who they are, and I’m just as guilty as the next person.”
Nonetheless, he added that there was unity behind the call for a full clean-up of the site, and a “clean out of the officials who did this,” including an FBI investigation and congressional hearings.
“The time for the games we’ve been enduring is over.” Pressing forward, he added, isn’t important just for he and his neighbors, but for people facing similar problems across the country. “If you think that this the only community that’s been treated like this, then everything we’ve worked for is a loss.”
For more stories about the CTS contamination, go to mountainx.com/cts. To view a timeline of the CTS case, go to http://www.timetoast.com/timelines/cts-contamination. For more history, visit http://www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles/040908ctssite.