Heavy rains caused landslides last year in Western North Carolina, destroying homes near Town Mountain Road and in the Beaverdam and Grove Park-Sunset Mountain neighborhoods. But in 2008, the region experienced the longest drought period ever recorded in the area. And meanwhile, coal ash contamination seeps into groundwater from 30 ponds across the state, including one in Asheville, and Elkhardt, Ind.-based CTS Corp. has still not adequately addressed the mess it left behind that contaminated well water for miles around.
What do all these problems have in common? They’re all about water, and a July 31 forum in Asheville examined them all.
Transition Asheville and WaterLinks — co-sponsors of the Water Sustainability Initiative —together with the Lenoir-Rhyne Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville and the United Nations Association of Western North Carolina presented the forum, titled “What you can do to tackle local water concerns?”
Meeting organizers and presenters provided a mix of individual experiences, current updates and potential solutions for local residents to use for addressing water issues.
One such individual experience came from Lee Ann Smith, who lives near the Mills Gap area and has been fighting water pollution near her home ever since she realized contamination from the long-shuttered CTS plant had poisoned her family.
“My son, Gabe, was 11 when he was diagnosed with a rare form of thyroid cancer,” she said. “His oncologist asked if we had ever been to Chernobyl.”
Now 21, Gabe Dunsmith has been in remission for several years, but he had surgery when he was 11, followed by two years of radioactive iodine treatments. A couple of years later, doctors discovered that his brother, Blaise, had a bone tumor. Though the tumor was benign, Smith said she knew something was wrong.
Assoc. Prof. Jeff Wilcox, from the Department of Environmental Studies at UNC Asheville, told forum attendees what likely led to these illnesses, as well as the health problems suffered by the Robinson and Rice families — residents who lived even closer to the CTS site and had for years unknowingly used contaminated stream and groundwater at their homes.
The contaminants are trichloroethylene (TCE, a volatile organic compound) and various heavy metals coming from the old CTS site, he said. The chemicals continue to seep into groundwater and nearby streams. The maximum amount of TCE that is considered safe for human consumption is 5 parts per billion, Wilcox said.
Samples taken from water at CTS have tested much higher, some at 21 parts per billion.
That groundwater serves the whole community, and everyone in the area quit drinking it once they were notified of the contamination, Wilcox continued. Residents used bottled water until local governments could install water utilities, but Buncombe County, not CTS, had to foot the bill, he said.
Contrast the story of CTS with what happened at Hominy Creek on Valentine’s Day this year, when Harrison Construction Company, a division of Apac-Atlantic, Inc., spilled about 5,000 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil from an open valve. The spill was cleaned within days, said Eric Bradford, volunteer and Clean Communities coordinator for Asheville GreenWorks.
“We got a major pass,” Bradford said. Follow-up tests show that the spill did not harm macroinvertebrates, amphibians, fish or nearby mammals, he explained. “As much time as we have spent in the Hominy Creek area, we have seen no fish kills, no large animal kills, and the macroinvertebrate studies we have done so far have shown a positive rise.”
That “major pass” happened because of community response, which made up 90 percent of those who were involved in the cleanup, Bradford explained. “We wouldn’t have gotten this pass without volunteers who want to get out there and make a difference.” The cleanup was an example of what happens when the system works, he said.
Emma Greenbaum, organizing representative for North Carolina Beyond Coal Campaign, followed Bradford with an example of a pollution issue yet to be fully addressed. “The Clean Smokestacks Act [of 2001] put scrubbers on pipes to pull pollution out of the air, but scrubbers concentrate it even more and put it into [containment] ponds,” she explained. “These ponds are rudimentary. Coal ash ponds are pretty much just a hole in the ground.”
This waste, left after coal is burned for energy, contains such toxins as arsenic, lead, mercury and thallium, she explained, and it is contaminating our groundwater. Greenbaum presented slides showing deformities of bluegill fish caught in Lake Sutton near Wilmington. Duke Energy’s neighboring L.V. Sutton steam electric plant, which generates energy from coal and natural gas, has polluted the lake, Greenbaum said. Some of the fish had no upper lips. Others had deformed spines.
Water carries pollution downstream, polluting larger bodies of water along the way, but it can also carry houses and roads downhill during heavy storms. One Town Mountain Road resident offered advice on how communities can take action to empower themselves and their neighbors, helping each other deal with water problems.
The group, Friends of Town Mountain, educates residents about environmental issues and promotes responsible development on the community’s main road and in its surrounding communities, said Friends member John Haas. The group is made up of residents along Town Mountain Road and all the roads that connect to it, from College Street to the Blue Ridge Parkway.
“A landslide collapsed [a section of] Town Mountain Road, making driving and getting to our roads difficult,” Haas recalled. A home in Beaverdam slid downhill and had to be demolished. A swimming pool and a house just below Town Mountain Road in the Grove Park-Sunset neighborhood were starting to slide downhill and had to be demolished too, he said.
The reason? Culverts and drains had not been maintained, Haas said. The solution: teaming up with government agencies to clean them. “One thing we learned is that you really need to build relationships with city, county and state government people.”
Rick Wooten, senior geologist at the North Carolina Geological Survey, explained the science behind the sort of landslides Town Mountain residents suffered. “The laws of physics do not stop at property boundaries,” he began.
Problems happen on hillsides more often when the land makes a 22 degree angle — a 40 percent slope, in other words, Wooten explained. Signs to look for are trees curved at the trunk. “When you see a lot of bent-shape trees, it means the soil is already slipping away,” he said. Though construction on such slopes is possible, he said, proper excavation and building methods require specialized techniques.
There are also things we can do to prevent water-related hardships for ourselves, and some of those techniques are quite simple, said LinkingWaters’ Technical Manager Sherry Ingram, a professional geologist, permaculture enthusiast and owner of WaterLinks.
“The Water Sustainability Initiative basically promotes four things for water sustainability,” she said. “Those four things are plants, tanks, earthworks and community engagement.”
“In WNC … we have flooding periodically, droughts periodically, contamination, particularly sediment, and here we also have problems with our political climate these days, around water,” she said. “Four simple things — plants, tanks, earthworks and community engagement — can address all of those problems.”
“Impervious surfaces, that is, places where we have covered the ground with something that water cannot get through, like roads, parking lots, footprints of buildings, basketball courts, do not invite water to stay.” she said.
“So, because the water can’t get through, we have increased the run-off [and] decreased infiltration,” Ingram continued.
One inch of rain on an acre of land produces more than 27,000 gallons of water, she explained. So, in 2008, when the area had the worst drought ever recorded, the amount of rainfall still resulted in about 1 million gallons per acre. “I don’t think the problem is getting water,” she said. “It’s what we’re doing with the water we get.”
“We hope that more people will think about water and some of the global aspects of water, not just the local aspects, like with rain barrels — though I think that’s also very important,” said Jim Barton, member of the local chapter of the Friends of the World Federation of United Nations Associations.
“I would encourage people to think about the value of coming up with positive global visions for the future,” he added. “So often, we think of problems in a fragmented way, or we think of them only on the national level, but a lot of these problems don’t care about boundaries, be it nuclear weapons and proliferation, water, climate and poverty.”