For neighbors of the contaminated former CTS site on Mills Gap Road, there are two key questions: What's to be done about it, and who's going to pay for it?
The answers, say those residents, are clear: Force the Indiana-based company to clean it up and pay for it. But CTS has recently countered that other current and former businesses in the vicinity could be at least partly responsible for the mess.
In a Sept. 28 letter obtained by Xpress, CTS Senior Vice President James Cummins argues that businesses such as Gerber Products Co., Varsity Dry Cleaners, Pechiney Plastic Packaging, Conner Motors and Carolina Insulation of Asheville may have contributed to the levels of trichloroethylene and other contaminants that have been found in area residents' wells and springs during the last 20 years (some of these businesses are no longer in operation). The letter was sent to several members of Congress who represent North Carolina, including Rep. Heath Shuler and Sen. Richard Burr.
In a round of tests in August and October, TCE contamination in one private residential well — overlooked during previous evaluations — was 168 times the legal limit for the suspected carcinogen (5 parts per billion). Now shut down, the well served two households on Chapel Hill Church Road, both home to branches of the Bradley family (see Green Scene: "A Well of Discontent," Sept. 9 Xpress).
One of the Bradley properties is also listed as the business address for Carolina Insulation, one of the companies Cummins cites as possible sources of the ground-water contamination.
Cummins' letter also calls on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate Carolina Insulation and other possible sources — including a home where a meth lab was discovered and residential septic systems in The Oaks subdivision — due to the chemicals used. "Federal, state and local public officials' interest in this site has been fueled by vocal members of the general public … who apparently have focused all of their attention on this site," the letter says. "These local citizens are not aware of the many known users of TCE, as well as other potential sources of TCE contamination, that are in their midst. The EPA needs to investigate and identify these other sources."
If Cummins' contentions prove true, it could mean some residents have been poisoning themselves: The septic systems he mentions are in The Oaks subdivision, where TCE levels of about 60 parts per billion were found earlier this year, and public water lines were extended to the neighborhood. The Bradleys' well contained a much higher concentration of the toxic chemical: 842 ppb.
But there's one big problem with Cummins' claim that "the various solvents and adhesives … used in the process of installing insulation and HVAC components" could have produced the kind of contamination found, says local resident Tate MacQueen: Carolina Insulation, a family-owned business, actually operates at another location 10 miles away in Fletcher. MacQueen has been a vocal critic of how the contamination problem has been handled by CTS, the EPA, Mills Gap Road Associates (the current owner of the CTS site), Buncombe County officials and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources.
CTS, he charges, is trying to shift the blame to others, arguing that none of the sources Cummins lists are likely to have produced the volume of TCE needed to cause the contamination levels found in the wells and spring water of such neighbors as the Rices, Penlands and Robinsons, all of whom unknowingly drank the water for 10 years or more and report high incidences of cancer and other serious illnesses in their families.
As for the recent testing on Chapel Hill Church Road, the EPA "finally sent us the final results" from August and October, Jenny Bradley reports. "It was more than originally tested: One reading was 1,400 ppb."
The levels were so high that the testing machine wasn't calibrated to handle them, and the sample had to be diluted to produce a measurable result, according to a letter from the EPA sent last month to the Bradleys.
After discovering the contamination in the well that provided the two homes with drinking water, EPA officials went door-to-door to see what other wells might have been missed. They subsequently added more than 50 wells to the quarterly monitoring network used to help evaluate the Mills Gap Road site, EPA spokesperson Laura Niles explains.
To date, no other tests have come back positive for TCE contamination, she says, but some October results are still pending. Commenting on County Attorney Michael Frue's Nov. 17 statement that "We've been told there's no danger to wells that aren't testing positive," Niles paints a different picture, cautioning, "We're not saying there's no threat, now or in the future." Studies are under way, she notes. State officials are conducting a health-and-attribution evaluation, and the EPA is recalculating whether the site qualifies for Superfund status. More wells will be added to the monitoring effort, and the next round of testing is scheduled for January, says Niles.
Meanwhile, the state is helping the EPA evaluate the possible sources Cummins' letter mentions, DENR spokesperson Jamie Kritzer confirms. Because several of those businesses are no longer in operation, he says, "We have to go back and look into the archives and determine what chemicals those companies were using, and also look at the geology and see if they're in a location that could [result in] contamination in the places we're seeing it."
That process means yet another slowdown in the effort to get the parcel listed as a Superfund site, and that's very frustrating, says MacQueen.
CTS, he notes, has been down this road before: A Mountain View, Calif., plant the company operated for 19 years before shutting it down in 1985 was later deemed a Superfund site. The cleanup there included such actions as removing 255 cubic yards of contaminated soil and pumping out ground water to decontaminate it. The TCE levels detected in that town's ground water were less than what's been found on and near the Mills Gap Road site, MacQueen points out.
A 2001 EPA report estimated that 17,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil rest under the one remaining building on Mills Gap Road. If that's true, he argues, the TCE removed so far by a vapor-extraction process CTS installed near the old plant — about 6,000 pounds — is only a drop in the bucket.
"We want independent oversight of this whole process, and an independent inquiry," says MacQueen. "People are going to continue to be exposed. People are going to continue to die."
Send your environmental news to firstname.lastname@example.org or call 251-1333, ext. 152.