“Would you like a bottle of water?” Larry Rice asks as we complete a brief tour of his family property off Mills Gap Road in South Asheville.
For years — since his parents bought the property next to the CTS of Asheville plant in the mid-70s — family members drank the water from a natural spring near the entrance to their property. The little wetland is still there, but it’s surrounded by a six-foot chain-link fence, and bears signs printed in red, warning people not to drink or have any contact with the water. Meanwhile, families nearby have complained of a myriad of health problems, including rare tumors, immune disorders, persistent fainting spells, and birth defects. A group of neighbors has assembled evidence of chemical dumping at CTS they say went on for years here. Rice says he now drinks only bottled water.
The former CTS property, now owned by a group of developers known as Mills Gap Road Associates, is all but officially listed as a Superfund site, a move that will place it among the most contaminated sites in the nation, enabling the cleanup that neighbors have awaited for decades. And while a large sign with EPA’s Superfund logo has been erected in front of the shuttered CTS plant, the official listing has been delayed as EPA staff analyze the public comments it must consider first.
Meanwhile, EPA staff from the agency’s regional office in Atlanta are in town this week, as contractors collect a fresh round of samples from area wells and springs, and EPA officials hold a “public availability session” from 4 to 7 p.m. this evening at the Skyland Fire Department. Neighbors are planning to attend, to continue their push for a speedy cleanup.
Buncombe County recently launched condemnation proceedings on the CTS property. County Manager Wanda Greene confirmed Thursday: “We’ve had to condemn the building. They do have a right to appeal that, and we will know Monday whether they do. Once we mobilize the contractor,” she continues, “the building will start down about three days after we notify them. We have the right to put a lien on that property, and that’s the way we would recoup” the cost of the demolition.
As for the possibility that additional contamination could be released owing to demolition activities, Greene tells Xpress, “EPA is requiring that the [building’s] foundation stay in place,” an action that is intended to keep any remaining contamination undisturbed.
EPA officials Rich Campbell, Samantha Urquhart-Foster, and Don Rigger are in Asheville this week to host a public availability session Thursday evening at the Skyland Fire Department. Photos by Susan Andrew.
“We’re gonna be glad to see the building gone,” resident Tate MacQueen tells Xpress. “However, if the shell of the building goes, and the contamination underneath is not addressed, then it’s just an exercise in beautification, by concealing the wound. There is the potential for a whitewash here. And that’s the last thing we can afford. In fact, this should be a case study for EPA Region 4, for how to turn a wrong into a right.”
Mills Gap residents have repeatedly voiced concerns about a coverup surronding the CTS case at the very agencies — both state and federal — that are supposed to protect human health and the environment. Last fall, EPA Branch Chief Don Rigger apologized to residents at a public meeting for mistakes in handling the case, acknowledging errors in detecting the problem, and delays in acting on it once it was discovered.
“It’s one thing to acknowledge your mistakes,” MacQueen says. “It’s another thing for them — the people who made these decisions — to show that they actually learn from their mistakes. That’s what we’re looking for.”