The Green Scene

Not enough, say residents frustrated by a proposed agreement with CTS Corp. for cleaning up contamination at its former Mills Gap Road manufacturing site. A 1987 North Carolina law caps participating companies’ liability in such cleanups at that amount.

Contained? Fences don’t prevent toxic vapors—produced by the suspected carcinogen trichloroethylene—from reaching residents living near the former CTS plant. Photo by Jonathan Welch

The state Department of Environment and Natural Resource’s nine-page proposal lays out parameters for CTS—which operated an electroplating facility in the area from 1959 to the mid-1980s—to follow in creating and implementing a cleanup plan and schedule for the original 57-acre site “and any additional area which has become contaminated as a result of hazardous substances or waste disposed at that property.” The Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS sold most of the property in 1987, and in 2007, the company agreed to undertake voluntary remediation. The current proposal spells out some requirements for such a plan.

At an April 21 hearing, Buncombe County Board of Commissioners Chair David Gantt asked state officials to explain the agreement in plain English, particularly in light of all the health problems some south Asheville residents have reported.

About a dozen of them were in attendance, dressed in black to honor and represent the nine deceased members of a single family exposed to contaminated water and air near the site for decades. The pollutant that’s garnered the most attention is trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen that settles into ground and surface waters (see “Fail-safe?” July 11, 2007 Xpress).

The nine Penland family members had lived near Mills Gap Road since at least the 1960s; they all died of cancer.

“Anywhere that [the CTS] contamination has traveled is part of the ‘site’ and must be remediated,” DENR hydrogeologist Bruce Parris explained. “If they cause contamination 25 miles from [this] site, they’re responsible.”

He also emphasized that the $3 million cap would cover only the direct cleanup costs—not the ongoing federal and state investigations into the scope of the contamination, nor a vapor-extraction project mandated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that’s been under way since 2006. “It’s not a limiting agreement,” noted Parris. “It doesn’t protect CTS from third-party lawsuits.”

But that didn’t seem to reassure neighborhood residents, represented by local history teacher Tate McQueen. “It’s as if the cavalry has arrived, but I have to question who’s riding the horses,” he said, eyeing the gallery of state and federal environmental officials who, earlier in the meeting, had delivered an update on their work at the site (see Buncombe commissioners report elsewhere in this issue). The residents are demanding an immediate, full cleanup, irrespective of cost.

And although Buncombe County Commissioner Holly Jones noted, “I’ve heard that $3 million is tiddlywinks,” Parris said the cap “hasn’t been an issue” in other cases around the state. One company did claim to have met the cap amount, but when the state asked for documentation, “They gave in,” he reported.

Parris also emphasized that CTS and the state have already agreed on a voluntary cleanup that falls under the $3 million limit. The seemingly low cap, he speculated, may have been intended to encourage companies to choose remediation over litigation.

Gantt asked how much CTS, the EPA and the state have spent so far.

The EPA has spent about $1.5 million to date, said Carolyn Callihan, the agency’s remedial project manager. State officials didn’t have an estimate.

And David Dorian, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, explained that the company’s expenses are not yet known, noting, “They’re required to submit a report when they’re finished.”

As the assembled residents muttered and groaned, Jones said, “I can understand the problem with trust.”

Gantt, meanwhile, acknowledged that there are many unanswered questions.

A federal health assessment isn’t finished yet, and the official on hand to explain its status declined to offer even a preliminary conclusion. It’s also still unknown how far the contamination has spread in the ground water. Some vapor tests have been inconclusive; private tests funded by residents seem to indicate an increase in contamination levels in some wells. And it’s not clear whether the hazardous contamination at a nearby grocery store and private school, also mentioned by Tate during the hearing, could be related to the CTS site.

Sounding off

The state is taking public comment on the proposed agreement through Friday, May 15. It’s available for review at Pack Memorial Library (67 Haywood St. in Asheville) or online at Written comments may be submitted to: Ms. Bonnie S. Ware, project manager, Superfund Section, N.C. Division of Waste Management, 585 Waughtown St., Winston-Salem NC 27107.

According to McQueen, documents show that the company dumped more than 50,000 pounds of volatile organic compounds per year, including TCE. And since a 2004 EPA document declared the contamination “an imminent hazard,” that should trump the state’s proposed voluntary agreement, and CTS should be billed three times over for the cleanup, he argued.

As the two-hour hearing wound down, Gantt—who’d previously had audience members write down their questions on cards and pass them to the front—asked the officials to take the remaining unanswered questions and e-mail their replies, so the county could post them on its Web site. But he didn’t hear one elderly woman, dressed in black, who quietly remarked, “We don’t have computers!”

Nor was he in earshot later when, in the lobby outside the meeting room, the woman (who requested anonymity) told an Xpress reporter, “I’m one of those who’ve got cancer.”

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About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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