Green Scene: The walls fall

Tumbling down: A backhoe removes the front walls at the former CTS plant on Mills Gap Road. The Buncombe County-ordered demolition at the contaminated site began in early December. photo by Katie Damien

With asbestos abatement completed, a Buncombe County contractor began demolishing the former CTS of Asheville plant in south Asheville earlier this month.

But while neighbors of the derelict structure have applauded the move as a long-overdue first step in cleaning up the contaminated site, resident Tate MacQueen, who’s played a key role in efforts to expose the problems and push for appropriate action, sounds a less enthusiastic note.

“Unfortunately, this is just a token gesture toward a real cleanup,” says MacQueen, adding, “Buncombe County taxpayers will be picking up the tab instead of the responsible party.”

broke the story in 2007 after a family living near the boarded-up electroplating facility on Mills Gap Road noticed a chemical sheen on their drinking water. The water came from a spring on their property that they’d been drinking from for years. The property borders the CTS site, and the family had reported various significant health issues. (See “Fail-Safe?” July 11, 2007 Xpress.)

Since then, community members have collected extensive evidence of chemical dumping on the property going back decades. Neighboring residents were placed on the municipal water system years ago, but not before some began suffering rare cancers, immune disorders and other serious problems. This past summer, the Buncombe County commissioners agreed to demolish the building.

The cost of a full cleanup is not yet known, but it won’t be cheap. A complicating factor is the fractured bedrock that underlies the area, which can allow contaminants to travel far from their source. Meanwhile, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund Division says it’s already spent $6.5 million just on testing and related activities at the site. The EPA has demanded repayment with interest from the Elkhart, Ind.-based CTS and Mills Gap Road Associates, the property’s current owner. CTS reported profits of more than $552 million last year, according to an article in Businessweek.

A snow job

Wintry weather made its appearance in Western North Carolina earlier this month, and right on cue, meteorologist Tom Ross gave a talk at A-B Tech Dec. 6 on the long-range forecast for this winter. Hosted by the college's Institute for Climate Education, Ross addressed a question on many people’s minds: Are we in for an extreme winter?

And while he admitted that forecasting is as much art as science, Ross, who works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration here in Asheville, said the tools of the trade have come a long way. Thanks to high-speed computers using the latest algorithms to interpret atmospheric patterns around the globe, modern forecasting uses real-time animations to highlight weather events at very fine scales.

But long-range predictions still depend on a pair of well-known, annual atmospheric patterns: El Niño and La Niña. In El Niño years, global weather forces tend to bring cold, wet conditions to WNC (and the eastern U.S. in general). La Niña years are more likely to drive drier, warmer winter weather our way.

NOAA’s atmospheric data, said Ross, indicate we're in for La Niña this year. AccuWeather and the Farmers’ Almanac both support the same conclusion: a relatively mild winter, with the worst weather focused well to the north, through the upper Midwest, the Great Lakes and Canada.

But then came the qualifications. "Elevation is an important factor for weather in WNC," Ross explained. There can be extreme differences in the weather at 2,000 and at 4,000 feet, or on the eastern versus western sides of our long mountain ridges, he noted. And such phenomena as cold air damming — chilly air that sweeps in from the northeast and accumulates against our mountains’ eastern flanks — can produce treacherous local conditions.

Then there are the "Gulf lows" that transport warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico to WNC. When they encounter colder air from the north, they often dump snow on our mountains. The big snows last Christmas and again in January 2011 were both produced by Gulf lows.

Other scenarios can also produce harsh winter weather. Cool air following a cold front may move in from the northwest; as it's forced to rise to cross the mountains, the air cools, limiting its ability to hold moisture. The result is a deposit of fluffy white stuff.

Still, winter snowfall in WNC typically amounts to 15 inches or less, noted Ross.

So what's his forecast for the region this winter? “No major snow until after Christmas. It'll alternate with periods of warm then cold, wet then dry after that.” Nonetheless, Ross predicts above-average snowfall, perhaps surpassing that 15-inch benchmark.

"The bonus is, winter doesn't last long around here," he notes. "It ebbs and flows." And if you don't like this morning’s weather, just wait a few hours and it will likely change.

— Send your local environmental news and tips to, or call 251-1333, ext. 153.


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