ASHEVILLE – It was almost 15 years ago when Bob Taylor first smelled the rancid chemical stench emanating from a spring basin on his friend’s property off Mills Gap Road.
An oily sheen glistened on the water, which at the time was used for drinking by residents of three homes.
“This stuff is greasy, it’s shiny and it stinks,” Taylor recalled Saturday of his discovery that July day in 1999. “I knew something was bad wrong, but I had no idea of the prior knowledge that CTS had been dumping here.
“And at this point they’re telling us it’s unhealthy to breathe the air. So you can’t drink the water and you can’t breathe the air.”
Environmental Protection Agency officials on Friday urged Taylor and a dozen other people living on property near the spring to evacuate their homes after getting test results that day showing unsafe levels of the chemical TCE in the air.
Officials said Saturday that it could be months before they can return safely, extending a Friday estimate that it might be a weeks-long process.
CTS manufactured electronic components at the site for decades before shutting the plant down in 1986. Chemicals used at the facility, including TCE, have been found in high concentrations in the soil and groundwater. TCE, or trichloroethylene, is classified as a human carcinogen and can cause damage to the nervous system, liver and lungs.
The advice Friday that they pack up and leave their homes right away was a sudden turn of events for residents who have been pushing for action for years — even taking their case to the U.S. Supreme Court — with little to show for their work.
Taylor’s friend, Terry Rice, who owns the property next door to the former CTS plant, recalled Taylor telling him about finding the contamination.
“I was freaked out,” said Rice, who moved into the house in 1984. “My drinking water came from those springs back then.”
The day of his discovery, Taylor contacted a reporter at the Citizen-Times, who alerted state environmental officials. Testing soon found TCE in the springs at a level of 21,000 parts per billion, which is more than 7,000 times North Carolina’s groundwater standard.
EPA was notified, and officials provided Rice and other family members with bottled water and told them not to use the tap water for anything. Within a few weeks the agency extended municipal water service to the property.
Two years later the agency issued an action memorandum for enforcement saying the site was an immediate threat. But what followed was years of testing and no cleanup.
It wasn’t until 2012 that the site was added to EPA’s National Priority List for cleanup after severe groundwater contamination was found under the former plant property.
Federal, state and local governments so far have spent at least $11 million dealing with CTS contamination.
The EPA spent $8.6 million from 1989 through March of 2013. Much of that went to pay for well-sampling intended to monitor contamination, rather than block its spread.
“We’ve been trying to get something done for years, but it’s just been test after test after test,” Rice said. “I don’t know why they have to spend so much money on testing when they could have used it to clean up the source, and I wouldn’t have to be moving out of my house today.”
Samantha Urquhart-Foster, remedial project manager for the cleanup, said recent vapor testing inside and outside Rice’s house revealed the unsafe levels of TCE.
Two micrograms per cubic meter is considered safe, but the EPA found 11 in the living quarters, 14 in the basement and 16 outside, she said.
Rice, Taylor and 11 other people living in two rental trailers on the 15-acre property were urged to leave. EPA will pay for the relocations to hotels and temporary housing until the springs can be cleaned. The testing was performed in April as part of the agency’s ongoing evaluation of the site.
Urquhart-Foster said Saturday it “could potentially be months, but not years” before the work gets done. She said EPA asked CTS on Thursday to perform the cleanup.
“We’re waiting to hear what technologies they are considering,” she said. “There are ways to capture the water and treat it, but it’s going to be difficult because there are multiple springs. We don’t know if anything will work until we actually try it.”
The EPA in 2010 conducted a study in which ozone was injected into the springs in hopes it would react with the TCE and bring the levels down, but it didn’t work, Urquhart-Foster said.
Jeff Wilcox, an associate professor in the environmental studies department at UNC Asheville, said he believes it will be difficult to clean up the springs without first removing the groundwater contamination at the plant site.
Wilcox has worked with families on the CTS issue for years.
“The TCE vapors are coming off the springs,” he said. “I don’t see how they are going to reduce the TCE vapor concentrations without cleaning up the source. Until they get rid of the source, those springs are going to continue to be contaminated.”
Rice’s mother, Dot Rice, who lives uphill on the property and doesn’t have to evacuate, believes the contamination has caused serious health problems for her and her husband. They have lived on the property since 1974, and along the way she had to have thyroid tumors removed.
“Fighting this for 15 years has really taken a toll on our family,” she said.
“It’s hard to believe this has gone on this long and no cleanup has been done. It would be hard for us to move because our property is worth nothing.”
A chain link fence now surrounds the contaminated springs, with a sign warning that the water is dangerous. But the chemical smell remains strong.
“Look at the oily sheen on top,” Taylor said Saturday as he surveyed the mess he uncovered all those years ago. “It’s a kerosene-type smell, an oily smell, always drifting. Every time you walk by here you can smell it.
“It’s sad, and it’s sick. Here it is 15 years later, and it’s still the same.”
1952: Internal Resistor Corp. buys land on Mills Gap Road and starts electroplating operations.
1959: The site and building are sold to CTS Corp.
1986: CTS stops manufacturing at the site.
1987: CTS sells the 57-acre site to Mills Gap Road Associates.
1988: EPA starts a study of the site, then recommends a Phase 2 study.
1990: EPA finds contamination in soil and stream samples, but the groundwater wasn’t tested, according to an agency report.
1993: The site is placed on the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources inactive hazardous waste site list.
1997: Mills Gap Road Associates subdivides the site and sells 44 acres to developers. The land will eventually become Southside Village.
1999: A neighbor alerts state environmental officials to an oily substance oozing up in springs on property bordering the CTS site. The springs, which feed drinking water wells, are found to have high levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE. Additional testing finds high levels of TCE and other volatile organic compounds underneath the CTS plant.
2002: EPA issues an action memorandum for enforcement, saying the site is an immediate threat and recommends additional sampling and planning for removal and treatment.
2004: EPA executes an administrative order on consent with CTS and Mills Gap Road Associates. The order directs the companies to begin remedial actions at the site.
2006: A soil vapor extraction system installed by the companies begins removing contaminants from beneath the plant.
2007: Testing shows contamination is spreading. One well tests positive for high levels of TCE and the state begins routine testing of wells in a one-mile radius. The county also starts testing wells for any concerned residents.
2008: Three wells in The Oaks neighborhood test positive for TCE. The county runs a city waterline to 34 homes in the subdivision. The EPA conducts vapor studies at and near the site.
2010: A public health assessment conducted by the state concluded that contamination at and near the site did not have adverse health effects. A report by the EPA inspector general says the agency failed to adequately determine the extent of contamination. The EPA announces it is considering the site for inclusion on the National Priorities List.
2011: Property owners near the former plant file a federal lawsuit against CTS, seeking unspecified monetary damages and to force the company to remove the contamination.
2012: A judge in U.S. District Court in Asheville dismisses the suit, ruling the claim was barred by a North Carolina law placing a 10-year limit on the time plaintiffs can bring lawsuits following a defendant’s actions in cases involving real property.
2012: EPA announces the site has been added to the National Priorities List of Superfund sites for cleanup.
2013: A panel of the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., sides with the property owners and allows the case to proceed to trial, ruling the state law was pre-empted by the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act passed by Congress in 1980. CTS files an appeal of that ruling, asking the U.S. Supreme Court to dismiss the case.
2014: Buncombe County commissioners agree to spend $1.6 million to extend city water to serve about 150 homes within a mile of the former plant. Construction began in March.
2014: The U.S. Supreme Court without comment agrees to consider the CTS appeal. A hearing is held in April. The court has yet to issue a ruling. Justices hear arguments in about 75-80 cases a year out of about 10,000 petitions.
2014: Thirteen people living near contaminated springs on property next to the former plant are urged by EPA officials to evacuate after unsafe levels of TCE are found in the air.
By: Clarke Morrison, Citizen-Times