Erin Brokovich, Take Two: A Case of Negligent Industrial Carcinogenicity in Asheville, NC

Erin Brokovich, Take Two: A Case of Negligent Industrial Carcinogenicity in Asheville, NC

Imagine: you’ve just learned that the water you drink daily is laced with carcinogenic chemicals at levels over four thousand times the legal limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You’ve spent years watching an endless stream of neighbors, friends, and family members from your small community be diagnosed with cancer at abnormally high rates. And finally, you’ve discovered that the federal government has been aware of the contamination of your water and the state of your community’s health for years—yet has done nothing about it.

Such is the case of Asheville, North Carolina, a small town located in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains and home to Vassar student, Gabe Dunsmith ’15. Ever since the early 1990s, Asheville residents have experienced unusually high rates of cancer—according to Tate MacQueen, a spokesperson for the town, “we hear about every two weeks of someone else who’s got cancer or who’s died.” Indeed, there have been more than 80 confirmed cases of cancer within a two-mile radius of the town—what could possibly be the reason behind such an occurrence?

From 1959 to 1986, the city of Asheville played host to an industrial facility operated by CTS Corporation, a company that manufactured electrical components for items such as hearing aids and automobiles. After the plant shut down in 1986, the surrounding land was sold to a real estate developer who proceeded to build several residential developments downhill from the defunct factory. Unbeknownst to the new residents, however, years of industrial manufacturing were continuing to take a toll on the land beneath their feet.

It has since been discovered that, throughout its period of operations, CTS Corporation illegally dumped enormous quantities of trichloroethylene (TCE)—an industrial solvent and known human carcinogen—into a stream running through the Asheville property. This toxic compound has since migrated through the surrounding land and leeched into the drinking water supplies of nearby residents; a 1999 study performed by the EPA found that TCE levels in one family’s well had reached 21,000 parts per billion (ppb). In 2007, the TCE concentration in a nearby spring was determined to be 293,000 ppb. The maximum federal limit for TCE in drinking water currently stands at 5 ppb.

Although the EPA made public the details regarding the toxicity of Asheville’s water after performing their study in 1999, it is now known the federal agency had been aware of the situation since 1990, yet failed to inform local residents. In fact, it wasn’t until several community members noticed an ‘oily sheen’ in their well water—provoking the 1999 EPA study—that information was revealed. The agency subsequently engaged in one remediation attempt by installing a soil vapor extraction system in 2006, but the system became defunct after an incident of vandalism in 2010. No further attempt at treatment has been implemented, despite Asheville being put onto the national Superfund list in 2012. In the words of Dunsmith, “I used to see [the EPA] as a bastion of environmentalism…but after getting involved and having to fight the EPA, I don’t.”

Dunsmith has been heavily involved in advocating for the clean up of the former CTS plant since his high school years, performing extensive research to determine how best to deal with the TCE that has infiltrated Asheville’s land and water. His suggestion? “The soil should be trucked out, there should be a remediation of groundwater, the people who aren’t on city water should be connected, and CTS should foot the bill.”

Of course, CTS has yet to admit liability, which spurred Asheville residents to file a lawsuit against the corporation in 2010. It isn’t merely damages that the plaintiffs are seeking, however—the lawsuit’s ultimate goal is “to compel the responsible party to clean [the site] up.” After several years of mixed successes and defeats, the case—CTS Corp. v. Waldburger—is, in fact, headed to the US Supreme Court within the coming week.

According to court documents, CTS’ defense rests on a legal technicality—that the residents of Asheville waited too long to file their case after becoming ill from TCE contamination. The plaintiffs counter that, due to the long latency periods of many of these health conditions, the time period specified by North Carolina’s “statute of repose” should begin once the victims become aware of their afflictions, and not once poisoning actually occurs. Both the EPA and the Department of Justice have sided with CTS against the residents of Asheville, a move potentially pre-empted by the existence of numerous contaminated sites adjacent to military bases. If Asheville residents succeed in court, the federal government would be forced to pay enormous sums of money for remediation efforts and damages to these afflicted communities—Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune being a notable example.

Given the minimal level of regulation governing corporate entities in the United States, CTS—in the words of one longtime Asheville resident—is “not going to be compelled by human decency to do the socially responsible thing.” Indeed, the time has come to end the many privileges and legal exemptions afforded to business interests in our country. It’s time to end the current era of corporate oligarchy, and to take a stand for individual and community rights. “CTS needs to be hit…where it hurts,” thereby setting a precedent for future individual-commercial relations of this nature.

Preserving human health is far more important than preserving one’s bottom line.

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