Two grade-school boys playing in Becky Robinson‘s yard on April 24 discovered that an old well on the property was leaking. It hadn’t been used since 1999, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that it was contaminated by trichloroethylene, one of many chemicals used at the former CTS electroplating plant on Mills Gap Road (see “Fail-Safe?” July 11, 2007, Xpress).
Earlier that day, an EPA subcontractor working on the well had removed the inactive pump, says Robinson. The contractor replaced the pump and left, she recalls. But by late Friday afternoon, it was leaking.
“There was a shiny, oily looking film in the water that has seeped out several feet around the well,” Robinson details in a videotaped interview with a member of the CTS citizens monitoring council.
Despite the EPA’s fed’s 24-hour hot line, initial efforts to contact federal and state officials got no response, so the Robinsons called the Skyland Fire Department. The next day, firefighters removed the pump and gave it a temporary silicone seal that stopped the leak.
EPA On-Scene Coordinator David Dorian did try to contact the Robinsons and their neighbors that Saturday, says EPA spokesperson Dawn Harris. The first call her office has on record was from Asheville Citizen-Times reporter Nanci Bompey, Harris points out. In any case, the EPA did send the subcontractor back out to repair the seal on Sunday, April 26, and work was completed by Tuesday, she reports.
The subcontractor was taking water samples as part of the EPA’s reassessment of contamination from the CTS site, Harris explains. “To sample at multiple depths, you have to pull the pump, [but] one of the seals ruptured [and] didn’t hold under the pressure.”
As long ago as 1987, soil and water samples taken at the 57-acre site—and at nearby springs and wells—revealed a slew of contaminants, including TCE, vinyl chloride, petroleum hydrocarbons, xylene and others, as reported in a 2008 EPA document, “Subsurface Soil and Groundwater Sampling Report, Revision 1.” According to the report summary, “TCE was detected in all of the soil samples collected during the  investigation.” Although many of these are suspected carcinogens, and vinyl chloride is a highly toxic carcinogen, no cleanup was undertaken. Additional sampling in 1991 continued to reveal contamination: “Several organic and inorganic substances including cadmium, magnesium, manganese, vanadium, beryllium, barium, nickel, zinc, 1,2-dichloroethene, and vinyl chloride were detected at elevated levels in soil, sediment and surface water samples collected from the property,” the report notes.
The Robinsons’ spring-fed well wasn’t tested until 1999. The TCE was 280 parts per billion (5 ppb is the limit for drinking water). As a result, the well was capped, and their home was hooked up to the public water supply.
But Robinson says she continues to worry: Children play in the big yard near the old well. Pets could drink the water that seeps out. Her family and neighbors used that well for about 10 years before the TCE was discovered, and the Robinsons have had various health issues that may be connected to TCE exposure. An EPA test last fall showed TCE at 1,100 ppb. Soil samples were taken at the well that Sunday and Monday, to determine whether the leak had caused additional contamination, but it will be several weeks before the results are in, says Harris.
Meanwhile, the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources is negotiating the terms of a voluntary remediation by the Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS, though many residents take issue with its “voluntary” aspect and the resulting $3 million cap on cleanup costs under state law (see “CTS Neighbors Reject Cleanup Proposal” and “An Issue of Trust,” April 29 Xpress).
Under a separate 2004 agreement with CTS, the EPA is overseeing an interim remediation project that involves injecting ozone into the ground below one contaminated stream. Ozone destroys TCE, the most common ground-water contaminant in the U.S., Dorian reports. Over the next six months, the system’s effectiveness will be evaluated, says Dorian. “If it is [effective], we’ll keep it in place until there’s a long-term [cleanup] solution in place.” Meanwhile, a soil-vapor extraction project, he adds, has removed almost 6,000 pounds of TCE since 2006.
But CTS may have dumped as much as 52,000 pounds of the solvent each year. To date, no evidence of buried barrels has been found, and there’s no conclusive explanation for why TCE levels at some locations seem to be on the rise.
The 2008 EPA report and others can be found at www.epaosc.net/MillsGap. To view the interview with Becky Robinson, go to http://web.me.com/cleanwnc/Site/ROBINSON_WELL_RUPTURES_TCE.html.
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