Punching holes

Frustration ruled the day at an informational session held by the state’s Division of Waste Management at the South Asheville Library yesterday concerning recent activities at the CTS of Asheville hazardous-waste site.

Unhappy with the meeting format, which featured one-on-one discussions between agency representatives and affected parties, residents demanded instead that the officials answer questions before the crowd of approximately 60. Most of them had to stand, as seating was limited. The meeting lasted more than three-and-a-half hours.

Present were Jack Butler, section chief of the Division of Waste Management, Charlotte Jesneck, head of the Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch, Bruce Parris, hydrogeologist, Bonnie Ware, a hydrogeologist charged with overseeing CTS site-remediation activities, and Cathy Akroyd, public-information officer.

The officials had traveled from Raleigh to provide information about a groundwater assessment at the south-Asheville site, which is slated to start next week. Early last November, Waste Management requested that CTS Corp. draft a plan for studying how far the groundwater contamination plume has migrated, which will require drilling monitoring wells (or, as Ware calls it, “punching holes”). After nearly nine months of discussion between CTS Corp., the Division of Waste Management and MacTec — the independent contractor hired to do the work — the project is poised to begin. Ware estimated that the assessment, which will occur in five phases, would take at least a year to complete. Asked when the actual remediation work would begin, she replied, “At this point we have no way to gauge that.”

As usual, residents who’ve been attending these public meetings for months decried the slow pace of action and demanded to know why nothing was done in the two decades when the site languished on the state’s Inactive Hazardous Sites list.

Of particular concern was the plan for sampling drinking wells. The Environmental Protection Agency has agreed to send a hired contractor to retest all of the wells within a one-mile radius of the abandoned factory, as requested by Buncombe County Board of Commissioners in a resolution passed several weeks ago. But residents were wary of this plan, saying the wells should be tested at regular intervals rather than just once. Dangerous levels of trichloroethylene (or TCE) were detected in two wells in The Oaks subdivision, they pointed out, six months after those same wells had tested negative. “We’re not just going to keep drinking the water, not knowing whether it’s good,” one resident said. “We have to err on the safe side,” said another.

But on a handout of frequently-asked questions distributed at the meeting, the Division of Waste Management made it clear that it does not have the resources to conduct periodic testing: “Sampling of a private drinking water well is the responsibility of the land owner,” the handout reads. “The interval at which a land owner’s well should be sampled should reflect the land owner’s level of confidence in the well’s water quality and the amount that the land owner is willing to spend for analytical costs.” The sheet also directed residents to contact the local Health Department for sampling. Residents of The Oaks subdivision have about two months to wait before a waterline extension switches them to municipal-water supply, and only those with wells that have tested positive for TCE have been provided with bottled water in the interim.

At one point, Ware suggested that well-water contamination at The Oaks subdivision might not actually be migrating from the CTS plant. “We don’t know where the contamination in The Oaks is coming from,” she said, eliciting laughter from the crowd. The assessment will establish that, she added. She also told the crowd that “we put off the assessment so we could have this meeting. The meeting is holding up the assessment.”

Also at issue was the concern that CTS Corp., an Elkhart, Ind.-based company with net sales totaling nearly $700 million last year, would be required to spend no more than $3 million on cleanup costs, because the company has agreed to enter into the state’s voluntary-remediation program. “Why are we spending $3 million to do something that will cost more than $3 million?” activist Barry Durand wanted to know. Butler responded that the $3 million cap is required by state law. And, according to Jesneck, “We don’t know that it will cost over $3 million.” Ware posited that the estimated yearlong assessment alone could cost “tens of millions,” which CTS will be fully responsible for paying. The remediation itself, according to the FAQ sheet, could take decades.

As to the history of the site, all five officials maintained that their branch had no evidence of ground-water contamination at the CTS site until 1999, when a nearby drinking-water source was found to be contaminated. But Xpress pointed out that a letter written by an Inactive Hazardous Sites Branch toxicologist in 1995 states: “The presence of vinyl chloride and trichloroethylene in surface water may actually be the result of contaminated groundwater.” This letter referenced a study that had been conducted in 1993.

In that letter, “we were speculating,” Butler offered by way of explanation. The short answer as to why the branch didn’t act on that hunch in the early 1990s by conducting a ground-water assessment was that their program is under-staffed and under-funded, and had other priority sites to worry about.

Another odd bit of information that came up at the meeting was that squatters who had evidently been staying inside the abandoned CTS factory were recently arrested, prompting resident Tate MacQueen to ask why there still isn’t a sign at the plant warning people of the health hazard in and around the building. “What specifically is your concern about that?” Akroyd wanted to know.

According to Ware, “a sign has been drafted and passed back and forth between the [EPA] and the public but no agreement has been reached yet [as to what it should say].”

Another concern was that, according to EPA test results, the highest levels of airborne trichloroethylene were found to be concentrated near a school-bus stop. “Maybe the bus stop should temporarily be moved,” Jesneck suggested. Despite the crowd’s frustration about the contamination, she added, “it ain’t gonna go away overnight.”

Go to the Xpress Files to see our compendium of CTS documentation, including a new fact sheet and frequently asked questions about CTS.

— Rebecca Bowe, contributing editor

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