Toxic fear surrounds Buncombe school

The Battle of Buncombe continues to rage, with embattled but persistent Buncombe County Board of Education member Lisa Baldwin now pressing for answers on the issue of potential toxic contamination at the central office building where a STEM high school for 300 to 400 students is planned.

“Why are we going to renovate this building for $4 million if it’s contaminated?” Baldwin asked. Before the school district bought it in 1989, the building had been operated by Square D, an electrical components plant.

Baldwin is attempting to locate a 1989 environmental report on the site, which she was told school board attorney Chris Campbell had been given.

Her pointed requests for the documents over a two-week period have stirred a heated flurry of rebukes from some of the board members who form a majority and regularly vote against Baldwin, who often is the lone minority vote on school board issues, and from Campbell.

Baldwin said School Superintendent Tony Baldwin, no relation, gave a report at a school board meeting earlier this month about monitoring wells that have been installed on the school site and adjacent property.

The wells were installed to detect the presence of trichloroethylene (TCE), an industrial solvent the federal Environmental Protection Agency has labeled a cancer-causing agent, and other toxins. In addition to cancer, ingested or inhaled vapors from TCE are known to harm the central nervous system, kidneys, liver, immune system, male reproductive system and the developing fetus.

“The most toxic well was on our property,” Baldwin said. An acceptable level of TCE is five parts per billion, she said, and “we’re at 287, which is a lot more.” One monitoring well had been paved over and uncovered just a few weeks ago, she said. Two of the wells tested high for TCE.

The school board hopes to have the building renovated and ready for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) school to open by December, which will require a request for proposals next month, Baldwin said.

“All of this is just being pushed forward. Parents don’t even know about it,” she said.

“The toxic contamination supposedly was found shortly after the school district bought the property,” she said. As part of her investigation, she wanted to find out what the original environmental report said. And that’s where the cyber squall started.

“We haven’t seen the report, it’s not in the file boxes held at the storage company (we didn’t physically take these files from Roberts & Stevens), the environmental company (which has changed hands) does not have a copy, Square D does not have a copy, the central office and Superintendent do not have a copy, and DENR does not have a copy,” Campbell wrote in an e-mail response to Baldwin’s request.

Roberts & Stevens is the former law firm that handled school board business. Campbell previously worked there.

“We are looking diligently to locate a copy. Please, no more emails,” he wrote. He also advised: “Please refrain from incendiary accusations and libelous comments.”

Board members Steve Sizemore and Pat Bryant also responded to Baldwin’s e-mail requests, calling her actions, among other things, “derogatory,” “inappropriate,” “far below the level of proper decorum” and calling for public apologies to Campbell and others.

Tony Baldwin told WLOS-13 television station in Asheville that the central office building does not use groundwater – it is serviced by city water lines – and that the district plans to test the building for airborne contaminants.

Still, Baldwin said she obtained a copy of the property deed and wonders, given the known contamination, why it showed no restrictions. And she is concerned because DENR has listed it as an inactive hazardous waste site.

“This is on everybody’s minds around here,” she said, because of the former CTS of Asheville electroplating plant being declared a Superfund site by EPA. “There are people with cancer that’s definitely linked to that plant and their contamination, and that’s been taken over by the EPA.”

State Rep. Tim Moffitt, R-Buncombe County, is looking into the CTS plant matter.

 

 

Dan E. Way / Associate Editor

Dan E. Way joined the staff of Carolina Journal in June 2012 after freelancing for CJ for nearly a year. Dan has extensive experience in daily journalism, editing The Chape...

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