The Green Scene

Government agencies—not to mention Congress—are great at saying a task will take one month and then having it take six, U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler observed during a Dec. 8. congressional hearing on the former CTS of Asheville site. On hand at the Skyland Fire Department were representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the N.C. Division of Waste Management, a local real-estate professional and an area resident. At issue was what to do next to address the problem.

Bullish on CTS cleanup: “I am determined to ensure that damage is contained, hazards are eliminated and long-term health effects are addressed,” Rep. Heath Shuler declared at a Dec. 8 congressional hearing in Skyland on the CTS contamination in the Mills Gap Road area. Photo by Margaret Williams

There were few new suggestions, though Shuler promised to “do whatever is in [his] power” to move the cleanup forward. He also urged everyone to do a better job of working together.

Shuler got involved in the issue in September, when he wrote a letter to the various agencies involved requesting information, cooperation and action. At the hearing, he emphasized that it’s time to move beyond the past and work together to get the CTS site cleaned up. “It’s very, very important that we don’t make the same mistakes that were made in 1991,” said Shuler.

That year, high levels of trichloroethylene—a suspected carcinogen—and other hazardous chemicals were discovered in a nearby residential well (see “Fail-Safe,” July 11, 2007 Xpress). But federal and state officials concluded that no further action was needed, EPA Region Four Superfund Director Franklin Hill noted in an overview of the issue. Saying he didn’t know why investigators hadn’t dug deeper, he speculated that poor communication and cooperation between agencies that did their respective jobs individually but failed to take the best action collectively may have been a factor.

“If I had been doing the investigation, I would gone a good deal further,” said Hill. (A year ago, he testified before Congress concerning the cleanup of the Superfund site at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, where TCE contamination was also found.)

At CTS, Hill reported that a company-funded soil-vapor-extraction process has removed thousands of pounds of contamination since 2006, and an improved process came online earlier this month, reported Hill. Further studies are under way to better determine where the remaining TCE and other pollutants may be moving—and to pinpoint the exact source of the contamination. “This investigation could potentially show other sources,” said Hill.

Dexter Matthews, director of the Division of Waste Management, added that negotiations are under way with the Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS Corp. (a multinational manufacturer of electronic components), which formerly owned the site. But other companies may also bear some responsibility and could potentially share in the cleanup costs, he noted, mentioning Mills Gap Road Associates—which sold part of the original 57-acre site for development as Southside Village, a residential subdivision, and which still owns the remaining 10 acres. In any case, said Matthews, “The cleanup could take several years to complete.”

On top of the time already lost, that timetable creates an “untenable situation” and a “hardship” for both residents and other property owners, said Neal Hanks Jr., president of Beverly-Hanks & Associates. The CTS site is having a negative effect on property values and small businesses alike, he said.

Meanwhile, the situation continues to threaten human health, said Tate MacQueen, representing the CTS Community Monitoring Council appointed last year by the Buncombe County commissioners. Besides contaminating wells, TCE can permeate the clay beneath houses and emit toxic vapors, he reminded Shuler. The city and county teamed up to run public water lines to the affected homes, but the contamination may still be migrating to other residential wells. Residents are also awaiting the results of a more comprehensive study than the one completed earlier this year that found no cancer clusters, despite anecdotal evidence from families who drank the water for years and now cite numerous cancer cases.

“We need action to rectify this problem,” said MacQueen.

Given the number of wells and the thousands of people who live within a few miles of the Mills Gap Road site, said Tate, “The ground-water pathway is of concern.” So are possible airborne emissions.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Shuler. He called for cooperation among all parties, asking the government agencies to provide timetables for action—and to stick to them.

After the meeting, one county resident told Xpress, “They need to tear down that building and remove the soil down to the bedrock. As long as the source [of contamination] is there, it’ll keep migrating.”

Presented with this suggestion, however, Hill was careful in his reply. “Any additional site cleanup would be the result of findings in a comprehensive ground-water evaluation,” he said, adding that while future action “could include removing the building,” it’s also possible that the structure is “serving as a cap” on the contamination.

With CTS negotiations with the state moving forward, the results of a more thorough cancer study due in February, a ground-water evaluation under way and plans for further public comment and participation, Shuler appeared hopeful. He said, “We have a plan now.”

For more background coverage, see these previous Xpress reports: “Fail-Safe?” (July 11, 2007), “Looking for Answers” (Nov. 7, 2007) and “CTS Cleanup Proceeding” (Nov. 5, 2008). To view documents related to contamination at the CTS site, visit www.mountainx.com/xpressfiles.

Send your environmental news to mvwilliams@mountainx.com or leave a message 251-1333, ext. 152.

 

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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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