Emotions ran high during the public-comment portion of the Buncombe County Commissioners’ Oct. 16 meeting. Ten people turned out to voice concern about a public-health hazard on Mills Gap Road in South Asheville, where the former CTS of Asheville plant is leaching trichloroethylene, a harmful pollutant, into ground water and flowing streams.
The outcry came mostly from residents of Southside Village, a neighboring subdivision built on property that was originally part of the 57-acre hazardous-waste site. Although these residents drink city water, they remain concerned about hidden health risks (such as indoor air quality) as well as the impact on their properties’ value. Other longtime area residents got their drinking water from wells and springs for years before they were alerted to the problem, even though the contamination had been documented by state and federal agencies almost two decades ago.
“This is such an important issue,” declared activist Barry Durand, who has extensively researched the site’s history. “We need every one of you commissioners on board—not looking away,” said Durand, perhaps the most vocal advocate for a cleanup.
“This has been going on for a long, long time,” proclaimed Weaverville resident Don Yelton. “This is an atrocity. Everybody refuses to address the truth, because they’re afraid it might step on somebody’s toes. You could do something today,” he told the commissioners. “You could pass a resolution today.”
David Gantt was the only one of the five commissioners to respond. “I live on well water out there,” he said. “You think I don’t care about this? Of course I do.” But he added that the matter is out of the county’s hands and would have to be dealt with at the federal level, since the site is under Environmental Protection Agency jurisdiction. The issue has since claimed a slot on the Board of Commissioners’ Nov. 6 meeting agenda.
The next evening, many of those concerned citizens joined at least 40 others at the Skyland Fire Department for a strategy session led by state Rep. Charles Thomas, who lives near the former CTS plant. Residents demanding a rapid cleanup of the site gave Thomas a hefty bundle of letters for delivery to Gov. Mike Easley. Copies of the letters will be sent to 11 other state and federal officials.
Ideas about how to proceed were as varied as the turnout. The state Department of Environment and Natural Resources announced recently that it will partner with the N.C. Division of Public Health to assess health impacts in the area. Meanwhile, Hartwell Carson of RiverLink, an Asheville-based nonprofit, is creating an indepent online survey to gather information about residents’ health issues. Some residents say they want to get their drinking water, soil and indoor air tested by local environmental laboratories. Yelton invited everyone living near the contaminated site to share individual stories on his show on URTV, the local public-access channel.
“It’s not about being angry and blaming people,” said Southside resident Therese Figura as she faced the crowd. “It’s about getting this cleaned up.”
Everyone seemed to agree that a swift cleanup is the highest priority, but many didn’t shy away from the idea of taking legal action. “We will institute lawsuits … to help the state—shall we say, give them a little push?—to clean it up,” declared Mills Gap resident Bob Aversano, adding that an environmental attorney has agreed to take the case on a contingency basis.
Several weeks ago, Harry Zinn of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources took surface-water samples near the former electroplating plant. The results showed levels of trichloroethylene in a nearby spring at up to 19,700 parts per billion—similar to the 21,000 parts per billion detected by government agencies in the summer of 1999. The maximum allowable level of trichloroethylene in drinking water is 5 parts per billion.
Zinn, however, says the results are not surprising. “They were high,” he says, “but we knew it was going to be about that level.” Putting a good face on it, Zinn added, “We don’t feel it is intensifying or spreading in any way.”