The Environmental Protection Agency failed to find contamination promptly, adequately address its cleanup or communicate effectively with residents affected by air and water contamination from a former industrial plant near Asheville, according to a stinging report released last week by an independent office of the EPA.
The May 19 report asserts that although testing standards were followed in assessing contamination at the former CTS of Asheville site, limited oversight along with poor record-keeping and communication harmed the cleanup effort and failed to communicate the hazards to the public.
The former electroplating plant on Mills Gap Road in southern Buncombe County shut down in the mid-1980s. However, beginning in 1999, neighbors discovered that trichloroethylene, a suspected carcinogen, was contaminating groundwater in the area. In the years since and recently, tests have found that wells and a nearby stream have many times the legal limits of TCE and other chemicals.
Residents complaints about the EPA's handling of testing and cleanup led members of Congress, including Sen. Richard Burr and Rep. Heath Shuler, to call for an investigation by the EPA Office of Inspector General, an independent office of the EPA that audits, investigates and evaluates the agency and its contractors.
"We concluded that the Region's assessment of drinking water and air quality showed that the Region's oversight and administration of drinking water sampling and assessment of air quality was limited," the report reads. "In addition, emergency response actions taken provided limited protection, and communication of sample results was not always clear. As a result, contaminated drinking water wells went undetected, Site risk remains, and the Region's communications may have misled and confused some residents."
Further, "we also found that the Region's record-keeping practices did not satisfy EPA requirements" and that plans for cleanup and communication "didn't adequately address current site activities. As a result, the Region may have impeded its ability to effectively respond to and manage community concerns and relationships."
As one example, the report notes that the EPA's Region 4 which oversees the cleanup along with the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources didn't follow up with a well owner who reportedly refused testing in 2006. In 2009, that well was found to have more than 160 times the legal limit of TCE, one of the main contaminants detected in water and soils near the former electroplating plant. And the well owner charged that no one had ever asked to check his well [see "A Well of Discontent: New Findings in CTS Case," Sept. 9, 2009, Xpress].
"Had Region 4 evaluated the completeness of its own well sampling, or conducted better oversight of the 2006 sampling done by [CTS'] contractor, the Region may have known the extent of drinking water contamination earlier," the report states.
Regarding air contamination, the report also says that a vapor-extraction system set up near a contaminated spring failed, and "area residents will remain at risk from potential TCE exposure through coming into direct contact with contaminated springs and breathing nearby contaminated air."
The report suggests that the EPA act quickly to assess the best ways to clean up the contamination, and declares that Region 4 officials also failed to communicate with endangered residents. "Some letters communicating air sample results were not clear and did not address safety concerns at the Site," the report continues. "The letters were not consistent with the principles of EPA's public participation guidance."
"This complex site is of great interest to the community and poses public health risks," the inspectors' report concludes. "We concluded that shortcomings in the Region's oversight of activities under its authority have been a factor in not detecting some Site contamination until recently. … The Region's Community Involvement Plan is incomplete; it neither addresses all of the Region's activities at the Site, nor includes a communication strategy. The Region also had inconsistent recordkeeping practices."
The report suggests that Region 4 focus on a smooth transition of the cleanup operations to the state, or declare the abandoned plant a Superfund site: "These shortcomings impede the Region's ability to effectively respond to and manage community concerns. Region 4's completion of its response work at the Site will neither remedy remaining Site contamination, nor mitigate potential future risks. The Region must be proactive in developing a clear plan to transition the Site to the State."
The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources has already placed the site on its Superfund list, but currently has to split jurisdiction with Region 4. Legally, this means that DENR is technically in charge of the groundwater aspect, and the EPA of the above-ground contamination a sometimes murky division of responsibility. The report suggests giving one of the parties full oversight of the cleanup.
The EPA's Region 4 office's performance has long been criticized by residents and activists, who've accused it of incompetence and an unwillingness to face or deal with the full extent of the contamination. Region 4 covers Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and six Native American tribes.
"It's great that they're finally acknowledging that mistakes were made," area resident Aaron Penland, who's vocally criticized the handling of the cleanup, tells Xpress about his reaction to the study. "But I think it's a mistake to turn it over to the state. NCDENR is very much the fox in the hen house in this situation."
He added that while the report vindicates critics of Region 4's actions, "It's just a step. We're going to keep pressing for a full cleanup."
The Office of the Acting Regional Director promises it "will do everything within our authority to ensure the safety of the residents."
David Forbes can be reached at 251-1333, ext. 137, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.