Don’t Drink the Water

In 1991, the EPA learned that there were toxins in a mountain stream. But nobody told the family who owned the property.

Terry Rice lives in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina, about 10 miles outside of Asheville, in a cabin his grandfather built by hand. When his family bought the 15-acre property in 1974, they were drawn to the natural creeks that wound between the oak and pine trees. As a teenager, Rice would wade into the springs or hike in the woods, drinking from the cool water on hot summer days. The Rices drew their regular water supply from a spring just a few hundred yards behind the cabin.

In July 1999, a visiting friend, Bob Taylor, volunteered to clean out the spring. Taylor was shocked when he climbed down to the water and saw dead plants and an oily liquid near the surface. “All the vegetation was dying on the bank,” Taylor recalled recently. “We’re talking two to three feet up the bank and there was a black sheen on the water.” He also found green barrels from a factory that had once bordered the property.

Taylor reported the oily sheen and the diesel-like odor to the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (NC DENR). Subsequent tests of neighboring wells and springs showed extremely high levels of the toxic chemical trichloroethylene (or TCE).

Rice remembers the day the EPA showed up at his door with bottled water. “I’d never much thought about it,” he said, referring to the groundwater on his property. “I was drinking it. I was sitting in the hot tub with it.”

The news made Rice look at his family with newfound alarm. His parents, Bob and Dot Rice, live up the hill from him in a ranch-style home. Bob was diagnosed with a brain tumor more than 15 years ago; surgeons tried and failed three times to remove it. Dot had thyroid cancer. Bob’s father, who lived on the property for nearly a decade, died of esophagus and stomach cancer in 1982. Terry’s daughter was also diagnosed with a brain tumor and other medical problems that required more than 50 spinal taps. “It has destroyed her life to the point where she wasn’t able to raise her children,” Dot said of her granddaughter.

None of the family’s doctors have linked the Rices’ medical issues with TCE, Dot said. But she doesn’t have another explanation. “We feel sure it is from the TCE and the chemicals around here,” she said.

Standing in front of his cabin on a cold recent morning, Terry Rice wondered how the contamination had affected his own health. Rice is a carpenter with shoulder length gray hair, thick mustache and beard, piercing blue eyes, and weathered, callused hands. With his southern drawl, blue jeans, black Harley Davidson T-shirt, and lined, craggy face, he bears a passing resemblance to Willie Nelson.

Terry Rice outside his cabin (Kevin Maurer)

“I hurt like crazy every morning,” Rice said, taking a drag from a cigarette. He’s been diagnosed with glaucoma, which his doctor said could be from exposure to contaminants (though it’s an ailment that has also been linked to long-term smoking).

The lush thicket of trees that once hid Rice’s house from the road is gone—the limbs are thin and bare, sticking out of the ground like crooked fingers. Less than 50 yards from his front door sits a trailer with white pipes snaking out in all directions. A chain link fence circles the vacuum-like device, which sucks deadly solvents from the soil and scrubs toxic vapors from the air. The machine sounds like a compressor steadily running 24 hours a day.

“It’s sad to look at them and how they’ve fought this thing for all these years,” said Taylor. “They thought they had a piece of property that would be valuable and sell it and move and enjoy some retirement. Their property is worth nothing.”

What upsets Rice the most is the fact that EPA had a chance to clean up the site years ago but didn’t. A memo from 1991 shows that federal regulators knew pollution from the former factory threatened the surrounding community’s water and air. But the agency failed to do more testing or even warn residents of potential dangers.

“How many people did they put at risk?” he asked. “I’m not going to live in something like this for the rest of my life. Part of the American dream is to own property, but this is an American nightmare.”

A sign warns visitors to avoid the contaminated site surrounding the former CTS factory. (Chuck Burton/AP)

Little is left of the CTS Corp. plant that once stood about 10 miles from downtown Asheville, North Carolina. There’s a gate, a chain link fence with some warning signs, and a massive cement slab where the main building used to be. The factory plant, which closed in 1986 after nearly three decades of operation, produced electronic components made of tin, nickel, zinc, and silver used in automotive parts and hearing aids. It sat on just under 10 acres, but the company also owned 44 acres of surrounding woodlands.

A series of cement drainage culverts once led from the factory floor to property that’s now part of a new housing development. Workers at the plant cleaned components with TCE, a colorless solvent with a somewhat sweet odor and a burning taste. Drinking or breathing high levels of TCE may cause nervous system effects, liver and lung damage, abnormal heartbeat, coma, and possibly death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry website. The EPA investigation found that CTS employees were disposing of TCE and other chemicals by pouring them down the drains and letting the chemicals leach into the ground.

A year after closing the plant, CTS sold the property to a group of local developers called Mills Gap Road Associates. As part of the sale, CTS hired Law Environmental Inc. to spend several months testing soil at the site. In its August 1987 report, Law Environmental concluded that “several areas of potential environmental concerns” existed, including elevated TCE levels in the soil—5 parts per billion to 53,000 parts per billions—in 11 locations.

But Law Environmental didn’t sample the groundwater, noting such tests were outside of its “scope of services,” and that “the potential for groundwater contaminants at the site appears to be minimal.” CTS plant manager Marvin Gobles said in a letter to the developers that the property was in “environmentally clean condition” and that CTS was not “aware of any past practice or occurrence which would cause the premises to be rendered in an unclean condition.” Mills Gap Road Associates made the purchase.

The EPA, meanwhile, was required by a 1980 law to do its own assessment of all hazardous waste sites. The worst sites are put on the agency’s Superfund’s National Priorities List. In the case of CTS, the EPA was especially concerned that hundreds of homes within a three-mile radius of the plant were using well water. In 1989, the agency hired a company called NUS Corp. to conduct a reconnaissance study of the site.

Even before NUS Corp. got to work, there were already indications that there was a problem.

In April 1990, Terry Rice’s brother, Larry, was having bad headaches. He told his friend and neighbor, Dave Ogren, that he’d gone to the CTS site and spotted hundreds of 55-gallon drums on the property near a waste pit. Ogren called the NC DENR because he suspected chemicals from the factory site had contaminated Larry’s new well. Two days later, an investigator from the department relayed Ogren’s complaint to the EPA, according to a 1990 record of the call.

“I emphasize that this facility may have imminent hazards based on Mr. Ogren’s indication that a neighbor’s new well may be contaminated,” NC DENR investigator Robin Purcell told the EPA, according to a record of the call in the agency’s files.

The agency never contacted Ogren; he said he figured no news was good news. But the NUS Corp. investigation for the EPA carried on as planned. Later in 1990, a contractor went onto Terry Rice’s property and took a sediment sample from what the 1991 report called an “old lagoon/pond area.” The sample showed high concentrations of dichloroethen and other toxic substances.

NUS didn’t advise the EPA to clean up the site then. But the contractors filed a work plan with the EPA, outlining their intention to “determine the presence or absence of contamination” by sampling groundwater in four sites on the CTS property. NUS also intended to take samples from an off-site well “to assess migration of contamination.” But the tests were never done.

At a December 2008 congressional hearing, Franklin Hill, the director of EPA’s Region 4 Superfund division, said he didn’t know why the groundwater hadn’t been tested. The EPA’s press office said the same thing in a recent statement: “A review of the file material does not reveal why the change to omit the sampling of the four temporary monitoring wells was made by NUS.” The agency says it can’t locate the NUS inspector’s field notebook, which chronicled every step in the assessment and may have explained why groundwater wasn’t tested.

Meanwhile, nobody told the Rices about the suspected contamination. The EPA later said this was because the tester didn’t know he was on private land. “We had a field contractor,” said Hill in a 2013 television interview with a North Carolina ABC affiliate. “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 negligence on his part.”

Jeff Wilcox, a hydrogeology professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, said that groundwater tests could have provided the definitive evidence the EPA needed to start actions against CTS and clean up the site. Instead, he said, “there were a lot of different people and a lot of paperwork. [The EPA] hires someone that recommends no remedial action. They check it off and file it away.”

Wilcox himself started taking samples at Rices’ property in January 2008, using it as an outdoor lab for his classes. More than 100 of his students tested water and soil at the Rices’, and their work confirmed that the plume of pollution underneath the CTS factory site was migrating.

CTS, based in Elkhart, Indiana, did not return calls seeking comment for this article. Over the years, it has been mostly silent on the matter, though in 2014, its lawyers sent Wilcox a cease-and-desist letter after the company learned that he’d been gathering samples near their former factory.

“There is a huge source below the site that has been able to spread for decades,” Wilcox said. “Everything pointed to a large source beneath the site. Any kind of investigation would have shown that and has since shown that. It is almost so obvious, it is painful that it has taken so long for people to get on the same page about what needs to be done.”

Terry Rice’s parent built their house in 1974, when Bob was getting out of  the Marines and the family was looking forward to settling down after two decades of moving from duty station to duty station.

“When we were able to get this land, we were so excited,” said Dot, a slender woman with graying hair who patrols her property in a golf cart. “This would be something we could leave our two sons and their children.”

Dot Rice, photographed by Tate MacQueen, a local politician who befriended the family while advocating on their behalf

Dot Rice said she planted a large garden and the Rices found work in the community. Her husband, Bob, got a job at the NC Division of Employment Security and joined local veterans’ groups. Dot started working for an oral surgeon. The couple played golf and bowled.

After they moved in, the Rices noticed the water coming out of the spring had a salty taste and smelled musty. When Dot used to walk the property with her husband, she could smell a sweet petroleum smell from the well and spring, especially when it rained.

“I got used to it,” Terry Rice said. “We checked for bacteria. We didn’t check for chemicals.”

The Rices never looked into the history of the CTS plant nearby, which had been operating since 1959. “We were too trusting,” Dot said. “We didn’t do our research on it. We didn’t think we had to. We had no idea what we were drinking.”

Over the years, documents show, residents living within a mile of the plant have been exposed to air filled with toxic vapors and groundwater tainted with TCE at 4,200 times the state environmental standard. Many of the homeowners say they believe the contamination is to blame for serious health problems—cancers, tumors and birth defects.

“People have gotten sick and died,” said Tate MacQueen, a local schoolteacher who ran for U.S. Congress in 2014 as the Democratic candidate for North Carolina’s 10th district. MacQueen, who lost to the Republican incumbent Patrick McHenry, made the CTS site a major issue in his campaign; his political website details his 15-year effort to get the site cleaned up. He said the damage done to the community has been “beyond comprehension.”

So far, the contamination hasn’t been directly linked with health problems in the area. A 2008 analysis by the North Carolina Central Cancer Registry found no evidence of elevated cancer rates within a one-mile radius of the CTS property. Researchers focused on the types of cancers linked with trichloroethylene—liver cancer, renal cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma—but admit that the findings are limited because of the availability of cancer records.

The study, however, found “residents using a private well identified in 1999 as contaminated with trichloroethylene for possibly as long as 11 years could have been harmed by drinking the water or breathing trichloroethylene escaping from the water to the household air.” That was Terry Rice’s property. The study’s recommendation: People who lived in these locations should have their “health periodically evaluated by a physician.”

Bob Rice began suffering from vertigo during the 1980s, when the plant was still in operation. Around the same time, he started to get easily confused and forgetful; Dot would sometimes have to pick him up from work because he couldn’t drive home. Now, said Dot, “he can’t put on his socks, button his shirts, can’t remember to take medication. Our whole lifestyle has been taken away from us. I don’t know what he would do if I wasn’t here 24 hours a day.”

Bob received his brain-tumor diagnosis in 1999, the same year the EPA paid its first visit to the family. Dot still remembers the dread she felt when the agency told them they’d been drinking contaminated water. “My heart dropped,” she said. “I got sick. I didn’t know what to do. It was like a death sentence. Our lives changed completely. We’ve not been safe in our homes since that day.”

Terry Rice recently returned to his cabin, disregarding EPA warnings. (Kevin Maurer)

When the EPA went to the Rices’ property in 1999, the visit was reported in the local news. It was the first time anyone in the area even learned that there were problems at the former CTS site.

By that time, many more homes had risen in the surrounding area. In 1997, Mills Gap Road Associates sold 45 acres of wooded property to the Biltmore Group, a development LLC headed by Richard Green. The partners at Mills Gap informed Green that there was a tainted stream running through the wooded areas around the old factory. But as Green told the local weekly Mountain Xpress in 2007, they believed the TCE levels were only “slightly outside of the federally mandated guidelines.” The residents in the new development would be drinking city water, Green added, so the stream “really wasn’t a concern to anybody ... I wouldn’t have bought the property from them if I had thought that it was a big problem.”

In September 1998, the county gave Green permission to build a luxury development called Southside Village. The EPA investigation at the nearby factory site began in November 1999.

Instead of reactivating the original CTS case file, EPA investigators treated the pollution complaint as a new case, renaming the area the Mills Gap Contamination Site. They soon discovered high levels of TCE: One soil sample had levels of about 55,000 parts per billion. The EPA concluded that the TCE levels “pose[d] a threat to public health,” including “actual or potential contamination of drinking water supplies or sensitive ecosystems.” Field notes from an EPA inspector pointed out the drainage pipes that ran from the factory. One pipe ran to “the Rice residence property and continues through the property as an unnamed stream.”

In May 2001, the EPA reported finding more than 830,000 parts per billion of TCE in soil samples under the factory building. The discovery prompted the EPA to file an April 2002 Action Memorandum/Enforcement to clean up the site. The first step would be figuring out the extent of the contamination—the memo estimated that would take an estimated four to six-months. The next step would be the “removal and/or treatment” phase.

“The situation at the site will worsen if a removal action is delayed or not taken,” wrote the director of the EPA’s Waste Management division, a man coincidentally also named Richard Green. “The presence of contaminated soil beneath the building at the site poses a threat to the nearby population and the environment. Unless removal actions are initiated and completed the contaminants within the unsaturated zone will continue to be a source of groundwater and surface water contamination.”

By 2003, the EPA had taken samples from off-site springs, including some on the Rices’ property. The samples showed levels of 130 to 34,000 parts per billion of TCE—as much as 11,000 times the state limit of 3 parts per billion. Then in 2008, the agency started testing for vapor exposure near the CTS site. One sample, found near a school bus stop, registered higher than most of the others. At the time, Hill, the director of EPA’s Region 4 Superfund division, had been reassuring residents that there was no threat of vapor exposure.

Six years later, the EPA evacuated Terry Rice because of dangerous air levels inside his home.

Rice came home one day in June 2014 to find people huddled at the edge of his driveway. The EPA supervisors told him they had bad news. Air samples taken from inside his home showed toxic levels of TCE. (By this time, his water was being supplied by the city of Asheville.) Rice said the EPA supervisors wouldn’t come into his house because of the toxic air

Before 2014, TCE concentrations inside Rices’ home had reportedly fallen within safe levels. But in September 2011, the EPA changed its system for measuring toxicity values for TCE. After the change, the EPA reassessed TCE levels near the CTS site and concluded that all of the homes sampled in April 2014 had air concentrations of TCE above the Removal Management Level.

The EPA moved two families renting mobile homes on Terry Rice’s land to hotels. Terry Rice moved into a condo about 15 miles away in Asheville; federal funds covered his rent. Each time he went home, he had to notify the EPA. For Terry Rice, having to leave his land was the final outrage. He’d lived there for 30 years. His evacuation had been widely reported and he was concerned thieves would ransack his house and the wooden barn he used as a shop and storage area. He also didn’t like calling EPA for permission to enter his house, a mandate to ensure he wasn’t collecting funds for a condo while staying in his original home.

“I’m not a criminal,” Terry Rice said. “I’m not on parole. If I want to go to my house, I’m going to walk into my house.”

Years after the first traces of contamination were found on the Rices’ property, it can be hard to know where to place the blame. There’s little question that CTS has consistently evaded responsibility. The Rice family settled with the company in 2005, after five years of negotiation. But a group of 25 landowners, who bought property from the developers after the CTS site closed, battled CTS unsuccessfully for years. Eventually, the company won a June 2014 Supreme Court case that blocked victims from suing because a state law’s statute of limitations lapsed. (That law was revised after the ruling.)

CTS also fought the EPA to get the site removed from the Superfund list, arguing, among other things, that being associated with a hazardous-waste site would hurt the company’s reputation. In July 2014, the D.C. circuit court rejected CTS’s effort to avoid the cleanup. The court’s opinion accused the lawyers of “methodological nipicking” and noted, “Each of CTS’s objections is without merit, forfeited or impermissibly based on extra-record evidence.”

As a result, CTS has been forced to fund the cleanup effort, with the EPA supervising it closely. “The EPA is using its Superfund remedial authority to compel CTS to perform a comprehensive remedial investigation and feasibility study that will lead to an overall site cleanup plan that includes the groundwater where most of the contamination is located …,” the EPA said in its statement. “In addition the EPA has conducted oversight of CTS’ investigatory and cleanup efforts.”

Even now, Wilcox believes CTS should be taking more ownership of the damage. Instead of using the pipes and trailers to remove toxins from the property, Wilcox believes CTS should offer the Rice family a buyout, allowing them to recoup some value from their property and giving them money to purchase new land. “CTS certainly has the resources and ability to do that,” Wilcox says.

After the Supreme Court ruling made it impossible for residents to sue CTS, MacQueen, the former Democratic candidate, started to focus on the EPA’s handling of the case. “This is an issue with business trumping human health and the environment,” MacQueen said. He is particularly troubled by the fact that the EPA gave the case a new file name instead of reopening the original NUS Corp. file. He has zeroed in on documents that are missing, like the NUS inspector’s field notebook. As MacQueen sees it, the agency’s lack of attention to detail is responsible for the Rices’ drinking contaminated water.

“We know the criminals will behave in a certain way,” said MacQueen, condemning CTS, “but we never would have thought the EPA would be an accomplice.”

Even the EPA itself has criticized the way its local office handled the case. “The limited scope of Region 4’s past sampling activities and oversight kept the Region from detecting groundwater contamination in drinking water wells,” said a 2010 report from the EPA’s Office of the Inspector General. The report added that the EPA’s “ineffective response action has not addressed the potential air quality risk that remains” and called the agency’s letters to the Mills Gap families “misleading,” filled with “jargon and technical language.” The inspector general recommended better record keeping and clearer communication with residents.

In its recent statement, the EPA said it was “committed to seeing the cleanup of the CTS Site through to completion in a manner that is protective, transparent and timely.” The EPA has spent more than $10 million overseeing CTS’s effort.  According to the statement, much of that federal money was devoted to “field work, analytical work, and community involvement work associated with listing the site” on the National Priorities List.

But the CTS site is on a list of sites to be cleaned up, according to the EPA. Samantha Urquhart-Foster, the agency’s project manager for the CTS site, says the feasibility study may be completed this year. In that case, the cleanup could start in spring 2016.

Terry Rice forfeited the money for the condo and moved back to his house in October 2014, despite warnings from the EPA. He moved into his wooden barn, only going into the house to wash up. In the front of the barn, he set up a cot, a small table with a TV, and a space heater to beat back the mountain cold.

“The air was on my mind,” Terry Rice said. “I stayed as far away from the springs as I could, but I wanted to be home.”

The EPA returned to the Rices in November to tell them the air was clean again. The network of pipes had brought down the TCE levels. Terry Rice ran his own test, paying about $300 out of pocket to verify the results. The EPA now comes back every six weeks to retest the air.

But Taylor, who discovered the polluted spring in 1999, isn’t convinced the site is safe yet. “Maybe the air is clean enough, but the fact is these toxic chemicals are still there,” Taylor said. “I found this thing 15 years ago, but they’ve done nothing except this little Band-Aid.”

Rice is happy to be home again, but he doesn’t see how the EPA or anyone will ever be able to make things right for his family. “They are supposed to be here to protect us,” Terry Rice said. “The EPA has done nothing to stem the tide of disease. All they do is test, test, test and nothing to clean up the site.”

But the tests aren’t finished yet, and all the Rices can do is wait. “They owe it to us that we have safe water to drink,” says Dot. “They’re not doing what they’ve been charged to do. I hope and pray our grandkids will be able to get out.”