Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials concealed life-threatening pollution at a North Carolina Superfund site and moved too slowly in removing the cancer-causing materials, a government watchdog reported Wednesday.
They also failed to tell residents when a subsequent test found evidence that dangerous contaminants remained in areas of the site in Asheville that had been developed into a residential neighborhood, according to the EPA Inspector General.
In addition, the agency’s monitoring of cleaned areas of the site to detect if the threat has redeveloped has been “too sparse and too infrequent.”
The agency “can accelerate the cleanup and completeness of work, and improve public communications, to better control human exposure to unsafe industrial contamination,” the IG said.
The CTS Corporation – an electronic components manufacturer – polluted the land from 1959 to 1986 with a dangerous, cancer-causing metal-cleaning product called trichloroethylene (TCE). The company ultimately sold the land, which was then developed into a 45-acre residential neighborhood.
“TCE is known to cause serious health effects,” Kathy Hess, a lead program analyst with the IG, said in a podcast discussing the report. “Even exposure to moderate amounts can cause headache, dizziness and drowsiness. Exposure to large amounts of TCE may cause coma or death.”
The EPA removed about 6,000 pounds of chemicals from the soil and designated the area a Superfund site in 2012. But dangers remained unbeknownst to the public.
Chemical contamination has again been confirmed in homes in the area, Hess said. Agency officials claim human exposure to pollutants at the site is under control.
The EPA’s “communication efforts were not always effective, thus hampering the progress of site investigations,” the report said. “The region has not met its commitment to provide online access to documents.”
Hess added that “the EPA region should have, but did not, inform in writing the owners and resident of the home closest to the contaminated springs that a reassessment had shown an unsafe indoor level of TCE.”
The EPA also didn’t require CTS to construct a model that would show the community “site risks and conditions, and promote community members’ participation in the cleanup process,” Hess said. “The community’s knowledge of and trust in what is happening are important to the success of cleanup efforts.”
“Both of these missteps may have contributed to a delay in the region obtaining access for the purpose of conducting necessary monitoring and cleanup activities on private property,” she continued.
The public quickly learned of continuing dangers in 2014 when “EPA evacuated residents from three homes near the site because of unsafe levels of TCE in the air inside their homes,” Hess said. “We also received many requests from community members and other stakeholders to review the EPA’s actions at the site.”
An EPA directive orders officials to “be proactive in engaging the community” and “explain to the community what is being done, by whom and why,” Hess said.
“We identified specific problems with the agency’s plans for investigative and system monitoring,” Hess said. “Monitoring has been too sparse and too infrequent to ensure that TCE exposure risks remain at safe levels.”
Wednesday’s publication is the IG’s fourth report on the Asheville site where the EPA has spent at least $11.2 million since 1999.
By contrast, EPA has been trying to make a region near Silverton, Colo. a Superfund site for decades, even though the agency readily admits there are no dangers to human health. Silverton is where the EPA caused the infamous Gold King Mine spill that dumped three million gallons of dangerous mine waste and polluted the water source for three states and the Navajo Nation. Town officials finally agreed to the Superfund designation earlier this year.
Meanwhile, the EPA has repeatedly claimed the Superfund program is underfunded.
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