EPA, Justice Department reach $9 million settlement over Asheville Superfund site

A forested area with a small guard shack is where the contaminant TCE has been discovered at the old CTS site in Asheville.

The former CTS site in Asheville: What you can’t see — TCE — has contaminated drinking water, soil, groundwater and air. (Google maps/street view)

The toxic chemicals malingering  in the groundwater, air and dirt at the old CTS plant in south Asheville have been there for as long as 60 years. That’s longer than the neighboring homes have stood, longer than the families have been on bottled water or breathed polluted air, a consequence of unknowingly moving near a Superfund site.

Now after nearly 30 years of testing, but no significant cleanup, the EPA and the Justice Department have settled with three companies for $9 million: CTS Corporation, Mills Gap Road Associates and Northrop Grumman Systems Corporation have agreed to spend the money on an interim cleanup for the 9-acre site.

The primary contaminant is TCE, an industrial solvent. Exposure to the compound has been linked to neurological and immune system problems, liver, kidney disease and cancer. High levels of TCE have been detected in the soil, shallow and deep groundwater, and air at and near the CTS site.

The saga of the CTS site has been documented not only by state and federal regulators, but also Asheville activists and media, who have pointed to the EPA’s many failures to protect the human health. Lee Ann Smith, chairwoman of the POWER Action Group, which has fought for a total cleanup of the site, explained that a nearby well contained levels of TCE more than 4,000 times the drinking water standard. She told Women Advance that her son, Gabriel, developed childhood cancer.

I learned about the abandoned facility when, several years after Gabe’s diagnosis, I began researching what could have caused his rare cancer. A question from Gabe’s pediatric oncologist kept haunting me. She wanted to know if our family had ever visited Chernobyl. Could an environmental malady be to blame for Gabe’s illness?

The International Resistance Company, later Northrup Grumman, built and operated an electronics manufacturing plant and electroplating facility on the site from 1952 to 1959. CTS then bought the plant and manufactured electronics used in auto parts and hearing aids until 1983.

For those 27 years, Indiana-based CTS Corporation dumped the carcinogenic compound TCE at their Asheville facility. But according to Mountain Xpress, it wasn’t until 1987, when resident Dave Ogren reported a chemical pond at the plant to state environmental officials, that any contamination had been documented. That’s the same year when CTS sold the 53-acre property to real estate developer Mills Gap Road Associates. MGRA in turn sold 44 acres to another builder, which constructed a residential subdivision. MGRA still owns about nine contaminated acres of the original site.

After getting a tip from Ogren about the pond, the NC Department of Environment and Natural Resources declared the area a potential “imminent hazard” — three years later. In 1991, an EPA contractor inspected the site and gave it a clean bill of health, even though nearby springs were contaminated — springs that fed the drinking water well of the Rice property.

In the 1990s and early 2000s, the EPA dithered and dallied. Not until 2012 did CTS install 101 water filtration systems in homes that were on private wells and that were within a mile of the site. Buncombe County eventually extended water supply lines to the neighborhood, but like a game of Wack-a-Mole, the next health crises to emerge were the plume moving through the groundwater and the vapors in the air.

Elevated levels of TCE vapor were detected not only outdoors but also in the indoor air at several homes, high enough that the EPA evacuated three families.

The cleanup of the 208,250 cubic yards of material is scheduled to begin in 2017 and will be overseen by the EPA and its contractors. The first phase will involved Electrical Resistance Heating to address the fuel oil and TCE mix that is in 1.2 acres beneath the former facility.

Essentially, this method applies electricity to the soil and groundwater. The generated heat boils the TCE and creates vapor, which are shunted to collection areas where the gases are treated. After the contaminants have been removed, the condensation and vapors are released into local sewer systems and the air.

The second phase will use In-Situ Chemical Oxidation to treat TCE in a 1.9-acre area. Chemicals, such as hydrogen peroxide with iron, are injected into the affected area to break down the TCE.

The EPA said these remedies should remove 95 percent of the TCE. But a final solution, the agency said, is still years away.

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