In a dramatic March 18 press conference, residents living near the contaminated former CTS of Asheville site leveled charges of incompetence at local, state and federal officials whom they say later tried to cover up their mistakes.
"For a long time we've been fighting to get the information, to make it less confusing," noted resident Tate MacQueen, who led the presentation. "At the end of this road, [the actions of officials toward the CTS site] have become quite clear: It's not confusing what we're talking about: There was a mistake, and now they're trying to hide that mistake."
About 50 people gathered at the Bishop Fire Station in Fletcher to call for a full cleanup and an investigation into the actions of government agencies that MacQueen asserts were grossly negligent. Since then, he maintains, they've tried to cover up their initial error in not cleaning up the site in the 1990s by calling for more studies rather than proceeding with a swift remediation.
"This was one act of incompetence followed by years of competent actions to cover up their mistake," charged MacQueen. (See "Fail-Safe?" July 11, 2007 Xpress.)
Although testing began in 1990, no one thought "to walk 75 feet to the Rice property and ask them where they got their water from," he continued, projecting internal EPA documents on a screen behind him.
In 1999, the stream behind the Rices' home was found to be highly contaminated, and the EPA has since designated their property — but not the abandoned electroplating plant nearby that's believed to be the source of the trichloroethylene contamination — a Superfund site. Meanwhile, although the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources (using the EPA's own data) kept the CTS property on its own list of inactive hazardous sites until the mid-'90s, MacQueen noted, both DENR and Buncombe County eventually allowed the bulk of the property to be developed.
In 2002, EPA project manager Don Rigger, who's now the director of Superfund sites for the entire region, scaled back the area being monitored from 57 acres to 9. The other 48 acres had been sold to a developer — which MacQueen maintains should never have been allowed to happen.
"A lot of people throw the word 'coverup' around," he said. "But when there's been a degree of malfeasance at the local, state and federal levels, it is imperative that it be brought to light so we can move forward, so we can fix what has for so long been broken."
County also blamed
MacQueen's presentation also targeted county officials, whom he said were negligent in 1990 when they chose to pass on information about possible contamination to DENR instead of informing residents directly. And in allowing development of the site, the activists maintain, the county also failed to do due diligence on agency claims that the area was safe.
The activists called for an immediate cleanup of contaminated soil from under the abandoned plant, and for the site to be placed on the Superfund list. In addition, they maintained, a barrier should be erected to prevent more ground-water contamination, and municipal water should be provided to every resident who might be affected by spreading ground-water contamination. They also said the state attorney general's office should investigate DENR's conduct, and a congressional/criminal investigation should be launched into the conduct of EPA Region IV officials' handling of the site.
The activists (including the Rices themselves) say the Rice property should be removed from the Superfund list, since it's not the source of the pollution. They also want compensation for both the Rice and Robinson families, who have faced some of the highest levels of contamination and have dealt with numerous medical problems over the years that they believe are linked to the CTS contamination.
"These people are not just numbers," said MacQueen after reading off a long list of cancers, growth defects and surgeries that members of the two families have had to endure.
A threat to public health
In 2002, according to an EPA document quoted by MacQueen, testers found that "the situation poses a threat to public health." Subsequent studies, and attempts to downplay the health threats, are merely ways to skirt the need for a swift cleanup, he maintained.
"Pretending this problem can be studied away — that's an insult to our intelligence," MacQueen proclaimed. "They have no excuse now: The secret's out," he declared, adding that the activists would no longer be seeking information, but action. "'No' is not an option here. … CTS could cut a check for this cleanup today. This is a matter of life and death."
MacQueen also asked audience members to call Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt and urge him to take possession of the site and have the contamination recorded on county deed maps.
Neighborhood resident Shannon Robinson, who said she once collapsed in the shower due to toxic fumes, described her family as "medical-bill poor. I couldn't raise my son for his first seven years," she noted, due to being constantly in and out of the hospital for surgeries.
County health officials attended the press conference, along with staffers from DENR and the offices of Rep. Heath Shuler and Sens. Richard Burr and Kay Hagan. No EPA representative was present.