The EPA's Inspector General has even launched a criminal investigation into the EPA's handling of the CTS site that dozens of Buncombe County residents believe made them sick. News 13 has followed this story for more than a decade and now we're taking an in-depth look into contamination at the site that has recently been listed as one of the most highly prioritized Superfund sites in the country.
The environmental protection agency is now investigating itself to see if it did enough to protect the people living near the old "CTS" plant which is now a hazardous waste site in South Asheville. Two North Carolina lawmakers want an oversight committee to see if EPA officials violated the law and they’re also calling for Congressional hearings in this case. News 13's investigative reporter Mike Mason presents this special program.
These are the faces of those living in the shadow of the old CTS plant. Some are battling cancer and other terminal illnesses, they say, was caused by exposure to toxic chemicals like Trichloroethylene, or TCE. Others fear they'll suffer a similar fate down the road.
CTS's corporate headquarters are based in Elkhart, Indiana. The company manufactures electronic components at plants around the world. When doing business in Asheville from 1959 to 1986 the company used the chemical, TCE, to clean and degrease those components.
Dot and Larry Rice live right next door to the CTS site. Their family has owned this property since the 1950's. Larry was a highly decorated veteran and during his long career in the military he and Dot lived near numerous military bases. When he finally retired, they settled in to their South Asheville home. Dot Rice explains, "We had planned for this to be our home and to leave it to our kids and my husband had been in Vietnam and survived the Agent Orange."
But Larry would soon face another battle with an enemy he never saw coming. Dot remembers, "April of '99 my husband had been diagnosed with a brain tumor." At the age of sixty one, Dot Rice now had a new full time job taking care of her sick husband. She was devastated saying, "He retires in November, he gets sick in April." It wasn't long before Dot became sick herself and was later diagnosed with skin cancer and two thyroid tumors. Dot recalls, "One of my tumors, I couldn't speak for four months."
In 1990, the EPA's Superfund division hired the company, "NUS", to test for toxic chemicals at the CTS site. A map obtained by News 13 indicates NUS also went to the Rice's property next door and tested the sediment in their spring, the same spring that flowed into the Rice's well and supplied the family with their drinking water. The tests were positive for the toxic chemical, Dichloroethene, or DCE. After testing, NUS issued a report stating: "DCE and vinyl chloride are degradation products of TCE." Scientists we spoke with say the presence of DCE most always indicates there's also a source of TCE nearby. Professor Jeff Wilcox tells us, "It breaks down into DCE, vinyl chloride and it's a carcinogen, so it's known to cause cancer."
According to the EPA, both chemicals are linked to cancer and other serious health problems. NUS and the EPA's records both show, after finding DCE in the Rice's stream, NUS did no additional testing for TCE on the Rice property. They did, however, test for both DCE and TCE in two of the streams on the CTS site and both chemicals were detected. The level of TCE in the water was sixteen times higher than the state's regulated limit.
When NUS gathered those samples in June of 1990, they never got the Rice's permission to even test on their property. More importantly, both NUS and the EPA failed to notify the Rice's their spring water was contaminated with a chemical linked to cancer.
Dot Rice is outraged saying, "They knew about it." When Mason asked her, "How could they do that?” Rice replied, "That's what I keep asking, how could you do it?"
The Rice's neighbors, Mack and Becky Robinson, had also been drinking well water that came from the Rice's spring. Around that same time they too were having health problems. Becky Robinson tells us, "My thyroid shut down. I have a lot of joint and ache pains all the time, the fibromyalgia." Becky's mother-in-law, Ethel, lived next door and passed away suddenly in 2008. The Robinsons were shocked to learn cancer had spread throughout Ethel's pancreas, liver and colon. Becky claims, "She was healthy; she was healthy as an ox."
Two years after having her first son, Shannon gave birth to a second baby boy. Both were born premature and both were diagnosed with compromised immune systems. Shannon herself has undergone more surgeries than many people have in a lifetime. Shannon tried to count them, "Twelve or thirteen, and this was within a seven year period." Then, by the age of twenty four, Shannon needed a total hysterectomy.
Today, at the age of thirty seven, Shannon still relies on potent painkillers, such as Methadone, to cope with her medical issues. Shannon's life-long dream of becoming a nurse had been shattered. Her mother, Becky, broke into tears remembering how, "She could have made something of herself."
In 1990, the Rice's and Robinsons knew nothing about the testing going on next door at the CTS site. They had no reason to believe their developing health problems could be related to their drinking water but that would soon change.
In 1990, the Rice's friend, Dave Ogren, was so concerned he called North Carolina's Division of Environment and Natural Resources, or "NCDENR". Ogren remembers that day when he thought, "Whoa, something is not right." The state report shows Ogren told officials he suspected the Rice's well water was contaminated by chemicals on the CTS site and he wanted to know if that was causing their "health problems". After reporting the problem Ogren says, "I just made my call and figured it's all taken care of, everything's going to be handled." But the state didn't contact the Rices. Even so, the Rice family still felt something just wasn't right. Dot remembers, "We continued to smell something really bad."
It would be nearly a decade before the Rice's, or any other residents, were told about any contamination. Dot gets upset thinking about it, "We had been drinking water that EPA knew had been tested and they knew it nine years before we did."
In 1990, five years after receiving the CTS report, the EPA hired a private company called "NUS" to thoroughly inspect the old CTS site to assess whether conditions had changed. NUS inspectors came to Asheville and soon found information that conflicted with the CTS report. After reviewing records from the Buncombe County Water Department, NUS found there were seven hundred and fourteen homes within four miles of the CTS plant that relied on private wells for drinking water, despite what CTS had reported in 1985. But, in 1990, NUS also overlooked something very important.
While conducting a risk assessment for the EPA, NUS listed the closest private well as being four thousand feet away from the CTS site when, in fact, the Rice family lived right next door. Their well was only about fifty feet away. Dot Rice says this was one of a series of missteps, "I just think EPA has just made mistakes from the very beginning." We contacted the EPA and a representative from NUS to find out what happened but they haven't provided an explanation.
In 2010, MacQueen and twenty four other families filed a civil lawsuit against CTS Corporation. In court documents, they claim CTS caused the contamination, which has created a "Continual Nuisance". The plaintiffs claim the contamination has harmed both their health and property values. The suit demands CTS clean up the site immediately and compensate affected families. In September, CTS appealed the lawsuit to the U.S. Supreme Court. We tried to speak with CTS officials about the case, but they haven't returned our calls.
MacQueen filed the lawsuit in 2010, after learning NUS had tested the Rice's springs in 1990, without their permission. Before that, the only thing the Rice's knew was that their well water had always tasted horrible. MacQueen says, "They didn't know the reason it tasted bad was because it was full of contaminants." The Rice's say they would have stopped using their well water immediately in 1990 if NUS or the EPA had simply warned them about the contamination. Dot says, "It was hard to believe that somebody that is supposed to be protecting the people would do that to a family."
Then, in 1999; tragic news, Larry was diagnosed with a brain tumor. That same year, just a few months later, the Rice's complained to state officials to say they felt their spring water was contaminated. Dot remembers that’s finally when, "They started doing some testing and they came up with the TCE." State inspectors found TCE in both the Rice's spring and the Robinsons' well water. That day in 1999 was the first time residents were told their water was contaminated. Even then, both the EPA and NUS failed to disclose the fact they knew about contamination nine years earlier, back in 1990. Dot is convinced, "They would have let us die."
In 2007, the EPA fenced off three acres of the Rice's property around their springs. At the time the Rice's were away in Florida. When Dot returned she couldn’t believe it, "Without even telling us they were going to do it they did it." Dot worried things were getting very serious. She wondered how long her family's water had been contaminated and whether that caused their health problems.
Dot says, "I was angry and I was devastated." Clues to some of her questions began to surface that year at Asheville's Pack Library. In 2007, the EPA sent a binder of information to the library. It soon caught the attention of local chemist, Barry Durand. It was the EPA's Administrative Record for the CTS site. The law requires the EPA to make these reports available to the public near Superfund sites where contamination must be cleaned up because it poses a threat to people's health.
Durand noticed the "official record" was incomplete, so he questioned Buncombe County's Hazardous Waste officials. Durand asked, "Why were certain pages missing? And, basically, I really didn't get much of an answer."
Durand felt he could be on to something big. So he and MacQueen contacted the EPA's point person at the time, David Dorian, who admitted removing the records. MacQueen contends, "David Dorian has said to me, on two different occasions, that he removed the Administrative Record because the librarians were concerned that his files were taking up too much space." But the head librarian, Anne Wright, still works at the library and tells us that's not true. Dorian won't comment because of the EPA's on-going criminal investigation.
At that point, MacQueen began to suspect the EPA was trying to hide something. He reviewed Durand's photos of the EPA's Administrative Record. The report detailed NUS's testing back in 1990 but it stopped abruptly on page 16, in mid-sentence, right before revealing the test results. MacQueen remembers how other pages were also gone, "The references were missing and the summary was missing, so where's the rest of the story?" That story began to unfold in 2010, after MacQueen and Durand obtained additional records from the state's file on CTS.
The state's copy of the 1990 testing report included many of the pages that were missing from the EPA's report, including those which showed NUS had taken samples from the Rice's private property, all without their permission. The state's report showed how NUS sampled the sediment in the Rice's spring in 1990 and found the toxic chemical, DCE, which the EPA says is linked to cancer. Scientists say small traces of DCE indicate there's a source nearby with even higher levels of TCE. But, according to the report, NUS didn't test for TCE on the Rice's property.
Professor Jeff Wilcox was perplexed saying, "I don't know why TCE was not tested for or was not reported." Mike Mason then asked Wilcox, "As a scientist that doesn't make any sense?" Wilcox replied, "No, it doesn't."
Professor Wilcox teaches Environmental Science and Geography at UNC Asheville. He says it's highly unusual to not test for TCE when DCE has been detected, "It doesn't make any sense to me why you would test for DCE and not also test for TCE and it doesn't make any sense once you detected DCE that you wouldn't go back and test for TCE, if you hadn't already."
We contacted both NUS and the EPA for an explanation but they haven't responded. The NUS report also shows they cancelled all four of the groundwater tests they had originally scheduled around the CTS site in 1990. Wilcox says those early tests could have shown whether chemicals had begun seeping into residents' drinking water. The EPA won't comment on this and there's nothing in the report to explain why those tests were cancelled.
When Shannon Robinson found out she was devastated, "It makes me mad because they knew, way before my kids were even thought of, that this was going on with the water." Other residents living nearby were also upset the EPA didn't tell them about the contamination either. MacQueen says he doesn’t understand, "Why wouldn't you go and knock on the door and say, 'What's your water source?'" Dot Rice was in total disbelief saying, “It was hard to believe that somebody that is supposed to be protecting the people would do that."
We spoke with her from her office in Atlanta via satellite. But first, officials made it clear we only had about fifteen minutes and we couldn't ask questions about what the EPA had done in the past. Urquhart-Foster told us, "If you're talking about things which happened before my time period, which has been in the past two and a half years, I'm not prepared to answer those questions."
MacQueen and Durand had questions about what CTS's role was in all of this. They also wanted to know why the EPA waited until 1999 to tell residents about any contamination, thirteen years after CTS had already left town.
MacQueen says this was "misinformation" that helped set the stage for what would later become a hazardous waste site, "If you diminish the risk by saying no one lives near here, plus they're all on city water, then on paper, it's no big deal and it was a big deal." It would later become a huge deal for the Rice and Robinson families.
In 1999, the EPA announced their drinking water was contaminated with high levels of TCE. The two families hired an attorney and threatened to sue CTS, claiming the company contaminated their springs and well and that's what caused their health problems. Mason asked Dot Rice, "What did you want to be done?" Dot replied, "A clean-up, we never asked for a lot of money and we never got a lot of money." In 2005, after six years of negotiations, the Rice and Robinson families signed a settlement agreement with CTS.
They say their attorney felt there wasn't enough documented proof at that time to prove CTS caused the contamination and they were advised to take a cash settlement. In the settlement, the families agreed to never sue CTS again and CTS denied any liability. Becky Robinson remembers what CTS representatives told her, "They said you cannot scientifically prove that TCE had caused any of our problems." Medical experts say it is difficult to prove TCE at any specific plant is to blame but the EPA's own research shows exposure to TCE does cause cancer and many other health problems.
Two years later, in 2007, critical information about the CTS site was finally released to the public when the EPA sent the Administrative Record to the Pack Library in Asheville. That record documented the EPA's testing for contamination at the CTS site back in 1990. It also detailed the EPA's 1999 test results when high levels of TCE were found at both the CTS site and the Rice's springs. The Administrative Record also included the EPA's Action Memo from 2002 stating the levels of TCE will increase and contaminants will "migrate away from the site" if they weren't cleaned up immediately. MacQueen states, "They said the site posed a risk to public health and that it was time critical."
In 2009, public pressure prompted local leaders to question how contamination from the CTS site got so out of control. We obtained footage from a Buncombe County Commission meeting in April of 2009.
Commissioners, such as Bill Stanley, publicly questioned state officials from NCDENR. Stanley angrily demanded to know what they were doing to clean up the Superfund site asking, “Are you going to make CTS clean up that mess out there? This is some bull s***t! Absolute positive, are you gonna' do it? Can you make them clean it up?" NCDENR’s Bruce Parris calmly replied, "All of the work that is being done is to make CTS clean up the property."
Commissioner Stanley then told officials about a conversation he previously had with former CTS official, Norman Lewis. Lewis was the company's Hazardous Waste Coordinator and worked at the Asheville plant from 1959 to 1986.
Stanley announced, "Norman passed away a couple of years ago and they dumped it 'cause when this first came up I asked, "What you do out there?" they said, "Yeah, we did". But it wasn't illegal at the time, by what they were saying, and it wasn't evidently. But it is now and they should be the one to clean it up, they should be smart enough to know it was illegal then. That stuff's not going to help the ground, we just need to stay on them my friend and get it done, get it done." Bruce Parris with NCDENR then replied, “Our laws do not distinguish whether it was okay to dump in the past or not. They have to clean it up."
Later in the meeting, NCDENR’s liaison to the EPA, James Bateson, spoke about the effects of TCE in the drinking water saying, "Ground water is another question. Certainly the Rice family, those two households, were being exposed to trichloroethylene in their spring box, those two families, over a long period of time. And it's not a comfortable thing to talk about that." Buncombe County Commissioner David Gantt then asked Bateson, "Was that definitively attributed to the CTS plant?" Bateson replied, "Pretty clear."
In 2004, the EPA listed CTS and the site's current owner as 'potentially responsible parties'. Mills Gap Road Associates currently owns the nine acre gated portion of the site. They purchased the fifty four acre property from CTS in 1987 and later sold forty five acres to a company that developed the upscale subdivision, Southside Village. Mills Gap denies having anything to do with chemicals while they owned the property. As a result, they refused to sign the EPA's Consent Order accepting liability. Last year, CTS officials did sign it and agreed to pay for future testing and cleanup.
The EPA is required to identify all companies that may be responsible for contamination before a site can be placed on the National Priorities List. That list helps to expedite a clean-up. In 2012, the EPA finally added the CTS site to the list. Dot Rice wonders, "We're on the National Priorities List so why don't they make it a priority, that's what it's supposed to be." However, there's no timeline as to when CTS will finish the clean-up. Some residents question why CTS is even allowed to clean up the same site they're accused of contaminating. They say that's like the fox guarding the hen house.
EPA officials disagree and Urquhart-Foster defends CTS saying, "Their contractors are doing the work, EPA is doing the oversight to make sure they're following all the regulations.
So now, 27 years after CTS moved out of Asheville, the EPA's lengthy investigation has ‘officially’ determined TCE did come from the CTS site. Still, neither NCDENR, nor the EPA, have provided evidence that CTS knowingly dumped TCE or even mishandled it.
Since CTS officials in Indiana haven't returned our calls, we went straight to the man who ran the Asheville plant for answers. Charles Beitner was CTS's General Manager of the plant for twenty three years. Now, at the age of 88, from the front porch of his South Asheville home, Beitner broke his silence for the first time ever.
Beitner recalls CTS having its share of problems. For instance, workers were fiercely divided between those who joined the union and those who didn't. Beitner says that tension created a hostile work environment, "The situation we had with the union there, people weren't going to speak up." Beitner says even though the atmosphere was tense, there was one thing everyone agreed on, "It's hazardous to be around that TCE if you breathe it."
Beitner tells us, "The degreaser sits in a concrete pit, if you want to call it that. So that's the area where the high concentration's at.” Mike Mason then asked, "Ok, I guess there was no liner?" Beitner responded, "Yeah, that's what I'm saying. There should have been something under the concrete pit to prevent it from going into the soil."
Beitner recalls, "I reported to Marv Gobles and he said, 'Well, you don't have to worry about it, we'll take care of it,' you know." Mason then asked, "Marvin Gobles was alarmed?" Beitner replied, "Oh yeah, and that's what he told me, 'I can't believe it.' I said I can't believe it either."
Mason continued to question Beitner asking, "So do you think CTS is at fault?" Beitner paused and then sighed, "Inadvertently. Not knowingly, that something was going wrong. The only thing I wish is that the EPA would take care of the situation and get these people taken care of before they all die off."
This past June, News 13 sent the EPA a Freedom of Information Act Request for any, and all, EPA documents related to the CTS site. A few weeks later they sent us three CD's containing nearly 63,000 pages of information. The task of reviewing all of those documents took News 13 several months. We noticed many of the records we received had never been released to the public, despite numerous requests for them by both activists and lawmakers.
In 1990, just two months before testing began, the state sent the EPA a complaint made by the Rice’s friend, Dave Ogren, who reported his suspicion that the CTS site was contaminating the Rice's drinking water. Then, one week before testing, the state sent that complaint directly to NUS and, once again, they also sent a copy to the EPA. MacQueen says, "We believe they changed the sampling locations in a week's time because they had been notified by the state."
They reported: "The suspected source of the volatile constituent contamination is from spills or leaks." In the plating room inspectors also noted: "There is an area where acid spilled from the tank and emptied into the drainage spillway. The concrete has been dissolved in this area exposing the underlying soil." The company recommended further testing to determine if groundwater contamination was a risk.
We uncovered another document that makes similar claims. In 2003, a letter was sent to the EPA from a company called "TRW" which sold the building to CTS in 1959. TRW says when they operated the plant; they used acid brick on the floor trenches to keep chemicals from eroding into the ground. TRW claims, "It is reasonable to conclude that the sections of trench that were installed using cement, not acid brick, were part of later modifications by CTS and....the concrete trenches eroded, exposing bare soil, allowing liquids to discharge directly to the soil and into the underlying groundwater."
MacQueen says, "That is super important because CTS has had a history of claiming that the site was clean." We wanted to know what CTS and the EPA had to say about these documents but they refuse to comment.
This is a section of that recording:
Dot Rice: "I think that someone needs to say, ‘You know, I'm sorry, we came on your property in 1990 and made tests.’ Mr. Hill, I know you know they came on our property in 1990 and made the test and it was 1100 parts (per billion) for DCE and no one told me, why?”
Franklin Hill: "As far as an apology, I have no problem with apologizing for that fact, that we did not notify you of what we found in the spring."
When the meeting was over we were outside Meadows’ office and had our own questions for
Franklin Hill. Mike Mason asked Hill, "I heard that you admitted that you tested on the Rice property in 1990?”
Hill replied, "I think the file indicates that there was a sample that was taken on the Rice's property." Mason asked, "And it was contaminated?"
Hill answered, "Yes."
We then asked why the Rice's were never told about it.
Hill responded, "We had a field contractor, in the field. He was in the field taking samples, unaware of where he was and took a sample in the stream. I don't think there was any negligent, any negligence on his part."
Mason then pressed Hill, "Nobody told them about the testing in 1990?”
At that point, Urquhart-Foster interrupted saying, "We're going to have to go, I'm sorry."
Mason continued questioning Hill, "You can't answer that question? I mean isn't that negligent? That's a toxic chemical, sir."
As Hill entered his vehicle he responded, "Mike, what I'll say to you is there's been no negligence on anyone's part here in Buncombe County."
Mason tried to clarify asking, "On you part?" Hill then said, "Have a good day" as he closed the door and drove away.
- - - - - - - - - -
For years, residents and lawmakers have requested the logbooks but the EPA claims they're missing. When News 13 requested the logbooks in August, the EPA sent us a letter stating those records "Did exist" at one time but both NUS and the EPA's copies must have "Been misfiled or no longer exist."
The EPA did, however, produce the field logbook notes from testing they did in 1999. The EPA hired NUS again, by this time the company had changed its name to "Tetra Tech" and the EPA was now referring to CTS as the Mills Gap Site. The EPA's contractor maps from 1990 and 1999 both show the spot where inspectors tested on the Rice's property and both maps indicate there's a ‘pipe’ or ‘culvert’ leading from the CTS site to the area next to the Rice's springs. In the 1999 field logbook inspectors referred to this pipe as a “Drainage system for CTS.”
Dot Rice has read the notes and says, "That was stated on their work sheet, that that's where it was, that drained onto our property." In that logbook inspectors wrote: "They collected the (Rice's) sediment sample at the drainage pipe outfall which drains the Mills Gap site property and the flow continues onto the Rice residence property as an unnamed stream….there is an oily sheen on the surface water with a slight odor." When NUS found DCE in the Rice's stream back in 1990, they reported it: "May be attributed to waste handling practices at CTS".
The EPA called for six months of testing and then the soil at CTS would be treated or removed. That was eleven years ago and folks like Becky Robinson are disappointed, "They promised they would clean it up and they haven't." Dot Rice also reiterates, "I would like to see a complete cleanup."
The EPA knew if they failed to take immediate action there would be consequences. Their memo states, "Based on the extremely high levels of TCE in the Rice's spring, it is not unreasonable to expect the TCE levels in the well water to increase over time," and they did. In 2007, Dot Rice paid a private company to test her springs and found TCE had risen to 293,000 parts per billion. That's over ninety seven thousand times the state limit and still no clean up.
Barry Durand doesn’t understand why, "I was really curious as to why it wasn't being done and all this time had gone by." But EPA officials tell us they did comply with the action memo by installing that fence around the Rice's spring in 2007. Urquhart-Foster claims, "The springs that are most contaminated are fenced off to prevent human exposure, so any immediate threats of exposure have been addressed under the removal program."
Wilcox has tracked the contamination for years. He has also worked with the EPA in the past and now incorporates the Rice's contaminated property into his teaching curriculum at UNC Asheville. Wilcox says, "Starting last summer we started collecting samples from inside the spring area and we've had samples ranging from 14,800 parts per billion." That means the level of TCE was nearly five thousand times the state limit of three parts per billion in water.
The last time Wilcox tested the Rice's spring was back in January. This time he took a sample from the head of their spring about sixty feet from the CTS site and reporter Mike Mason took another about fifty feet further downstream.
Back at the lab, Wilcox used the EPA's approved method of testing and within thirty minutes he had the results. Wilcox told us, "The first sample you collected was 735 parts per billion." That's 245 times the state's regulated limit. But Wilcox says the sample he took at the head of the spring was much higher, "At the spring it's 55-hundred parts per billion." That's more than eighteen hundred times the state limit, and we took these water samples twenty seven years after CTS shut down operations.
We also wondered if toxic vapors could be detected in the air. In 2008, the EPA's air testing showed high amounts of TCE around the Rice property; sixteen times the state's acceptable level. In 2009, NCDENR official, James Bateson, spoke about the issue of toxic vapors around the CTS site during a Buncombe County Commission meeting. Bateson reported, "We strategized a lot to catch a whiff up there but it's difficult." But EPA officials were still concerned about the vapor levels. They issued a memo in 2010 after their experts reviewed the 2008 test results. They determined the levels of TCE vapors in the air showed a need for "Future monitoring if the source is not removed" or addressed. Wilcox says, "There's been no source removal or mitigation since that memo came out."
Each time we went to the Rice property we could easily detect a heavy odor of chemicals so we decided to conduct our own air test. News 13 purchased the same test kit used by the EPA. Professor Wilcox installed the canister along the Rice's fence line in the same location the EPA had tested back in 2008.
Within a week our results were in and the level of TCE vapors was more than twice the amount the EPA had reported in 2008, in the same location.
According to our test, the TCE in the air had risen to a level thirty nine times higher than the state's acceptable limit. Wilcox states, "What the second test showed is that there is variability in the concentrations. We've been asking for years for the EPA, or NCDENR, or whomever to do additional air testing. All of the recommended protocols suggest when you're above the screening level that you do additional testing."
In Wilcox's research, he has also studied TCE levels in the trees growing along the Rice property. Dot Rice recalls, "We've lost probably twenty trees around the spring area that have just died."
Back in 1990, NUS testing showed TCE had already begun migrating away from the CTS site. TCE continues to flow in the Rice's spring at high levels. Their spring is connected to Robinson Creek which eventually joins Cane Creek; the water then empties out in to the French Broad River. The EPA report from 1991 stated, "The French Broad could be affected by the contamination at CTS." But EPA officials didn't take action to prevent it.
Now, twenty two years later, the EPA is still in the testing phase and admits it will be quite a while before there's any real cleanup at the old CTS site. Urquhart-Foster admits, "It will be several years, the remedial investigation phase process takes a couple of years to get through and this is a complex site, we've got fractured bedrock, it's pretty complicated."
|Interview with Congressman Mark Meadows|
More than one hundred people packed the room. Reporter Mike Mason asked the crowd, "Can you raise your hands if you think that you may have been affected by any contamination regarding CTS? Just keep them up for a second. Okay that's quite a few people. Has anybody here had a relative they think died because of being exposed to contamination regarding TCE?" About fifteen people raised their hands.
Although the Rice and Robinsons were the first families notified about the contamination in 1999, many more have since been affected. Some who weren't notified are now concerned their water was also contaminated.
In the past year, CTS has paid to install water filtration systems at ninety six homes, all located within one mile of the site. Buncombe County has connected dozens of other homes to city water lines but there are more than a hundred additional families still waiting to be connected and county taxpayers will end up footing the bill.
Some residents are furious with how officials have handled the whole situation. During the Town Hall meeting, one man asked, "Where are the politicians? This is a huge community with ramifications not only here but the French Broad River. They're not here; if they gave a rat's butt they'd be here! "
Some who have been living close to CTS are simply disgusted they still don't have access to clean water. Lori Murphy is one of them, "When are they putting the municipal water lines in? It's been almost a year now since they promised us municipal water."
Others who recently moved to the area are in disbelief. One man stated, "I moved here less than a year ago and this is the first I'm hearing of this CTS issue, I'm grossly sick right now hearing about this, all the human beings who were affected."
Another woman in the crowd announced, "These are families that have scars for life. People that have died!" One concerned parent says she grew up in another country and pleaded, "This is America, that's why I came to live here. Where is the justice?"
Overall, residents are hoping for one thing and local activist, Judy Selz, summed it up, "We want the chemicals out more than anything else and the site cleaned up."
According to U.S. Congressman Mark Meadows, that's a top priority. Meadows told us he questions how EPA officials handled the CTS site, especially when it comes to the Rice family. Meadows told us, "The fact that they did tests and knew there was contamination and nobody told them. That's troubling." Meadows also reacted to new documents we uncovered saying, "The information that I've seen today is very troubling and would indicate there were certainly improprieties in the way it was done."
One of those "improprieties" may include a report the EPA sent to News 13. We found it in those CD's, a copy of the EPA's inspection of CTS from 1990. You may remember how the EPA's version always had some pages missing. For the first time, the report "appeared" to be complete, with all 196 pages accounted for. But, after careful review, we found the pages were all "hand numbered". In fact, there were more than twenty "duplicate" pages inserted. MacQueen says, "It gives the appearance of being 196 pages."
We found the EPA did not give us the full report and the critical documents that had always been missing still were, including test results from the 1990 inspection. The EPA refuses to explain how this happened, saying it's all part of the criminal investigation. MacQueen feels, "There is a story here that they don't want uncovered; your discs that WLOS acquired from your FOIA."
Remember the Administrative Record that ‘disappeared’ from the Pack Library in 2007? Federal Law requires the EPA to make that record public so residents will know about the contamination and how it will be cleaned up. Since 1999, the EPA knew TCE was contaminating wells and, at that time. Federal Law required the EPA to make the record public; but they didn't until 2007.
News 13 questioned why EPA officials waited eight long years before releasing it. They then sent us an email, and, for the first time admitted, "The Administrative Record should have been released for public view in October, 1999." Congressman Meadows reacted saying he has concerns about, "The potential for cover-up, the potential for evidence that wasn't shared."
MacQueen feels there's enough evidence in those 3 CD's alone to support criminal charges against EPA officials saying, "All of the timeline now is clear of what they did versus what they should have done. What they did when they realized what they should have done, all of these things are documented with the documents that you got."
Four days after our Town Hall meeting, the EPA sent a certified letter to News 13 stating they had, "Inadvertently released sensitive information" to us. The EPA now claims those 3 CD's, which hold nearly 63,000 documents, "Contain personally identifiable information" along with "Confidential business information" which should be "Returned" to the EPA. They also requested we "Destroy any copies we had made."
MacQueen says, "I know why they want it back, because the documents that you have serve as indictments for their behavior. I believe they are scared to the point of paralysis now."
Congressman Mark Meadows also demands to know what, if anything, EPA officials have to hide saying, "If it is a cover-up we have to make sure that not only we hold them accountable but that we send people to jail." Meadows says he now plans to request Congressional hearings, hoping that will force EPA officials to explain how a Superfund site turned in to a landslide of controversy. Meadows states, "It is very, very concerning that we would have this because what we've got is an agency that didn't do their job."
Katie Hicks is Assistant Director of the non-profit organization, "Clean Water for North Carolina". It's an environmental justice group that lobbies for safe water and public health issues. Hicks criticized the study saying, "They have a very limited scope." After reviewing the state's health assessment, Hicks found the study to be incomplete and misleading. For example, officials didn't speak directly with former CTS workers or local residents.
In the study, the state only reviewed patient records at medical facilities between 1990 and 2005. Anyone who had moved out of the area was excluded. Hicks says, "You have people who have been drinking from wells in the South Asheville community who, just because they weren't contacted for the study or didn’t know it was going on, it's assumed that, 'well people probably didn't come in to contact with it so, therefore, there's not an exposure pathway’."
The public health division addressed some concerns they received and put them in the appendix of the report. They admit they had limited data to work with.
This past July, the state issued a follow-up assessment with similar results. Hicks also questions several conclusions in that report as well, including one stating that the chain link fence around the Rice's springs will protect the public from exposure to TCE. Hicks responded to this saying, "To claim that the public health threat is minimized by just putting up a fence is short-sighted and not helpful to the residents who are pushing for cleanup." The recent study didn't take into consideration the toxic vapors in the air. Hicks expressed concern, "Breathing these vapors is one of the public health threats that could be the most urgent."
In 2011, Dot Rice also did her own survey, going door to door, interviewing residents who lived within a quarter mile of the CTS site. She managed to compile a list of dozens of people who reported having serious illnesses. Dot Rice recalls, "We came up with sixty four cancers within a fourth of a mile area." Katie Hicks applauds Rice’s efforts saying, "These cancer registries that they are drawing the data from, this is exactly the kind of real, on the ground data that they're not picking up on."
At the end of the day, this story is about ordinary people brought together by one common belief; that toxic chemicals have changed their lives forever. Mary Sue McGraw worked at CTS and feels, "I lost years off my life and had major problems ever since." Many are angered they had been drinking contaminated water for so long.
Dot Rice fights backs tears whenever she thinks about it, "Our whole lives have been destroyed." Each person affected has their own story.
With so much time passing by before anyone knew their drinking water was contaminated, many wonder what if? What if CTS and the EPA had simply cleaned things up?
Former CTS General Manager Charles Beitner is sympathetic but asks, "How can you undo something? You can't. You wish you could but you can't."
What if the EPA had told people their water was contaminated the very minute they got those test results? And for those already diagnosed with cancer, what can be done for them?
Oncologist Shonda Asaad sighs when asked that question and admits, “That's a difficult subject. I really don't know of specific treatment for the TCE exposure."
Other residents wonder if they'll be affected later in life. Is it just a matter of time? That constant worrying, will I be next? Dot Rice has struggled with this for years and worries, "I lay awake at night and think, where is it all going to end? We're just hoping that maybe with your story, that maybe you can reach somebody that feels for us and will see that somebody does something to get a cleanup."
Last year, the EPA's Inspector General launched an investigation into allegations of fraud and other criminal acts involving the way EPA officials handled the CTS site. Many feel Congressional hearings will compel officials to testify and it's the only way we'll know the whole story about what happened.
We reached out to Congressmen Patrick McHenry and, as you saw, Mark Meadows as well. Both support the criminal investigation into how the EPA handled the CTS site. Meadows told us he also wants EPA officials to face an Oversight Committee and Congressional hearings. Senator Kay Hagan says she'll do whatever she can to protect the health of residents living near CTS but she denied our request for an interview. Senator Richard Burr did not respond to our calls or emails. State Representative Tim Moffitt has requested complete removal of the soil at the CTS site and says he’s already coordinated a company to replace it with new soil but the EPA doesn’t want to do that.
We tried contacting CTS officials, and their attorneys, numerous times but they have not responded.