The London-based magazine The Guardian published an opinion piece written by Gabe Dunsmith, member of POWER, who grew up near the CTS site.
I was diagnosed with cancer at age 11. A factory leaked chemicals near my home
by Gabe Dunsmith
Published September 15, 2015
When an MRI of my spine revealed an enlarged thyroid instead of the scoliosis the doctors had feared, they whisked me away for a biopsy. I lay awake as the surgeon stuck a needle into my neck and wiped away the blood. The next day, my mom told me the test result when I got home from school: thyroid cancer. I was eleven years old.
As the surgeons put me under for an operation that would remove my thyroid, I hoped I would still be able to run around outside with my brother, to clamber through the groves and streams that surrounded my home in the mountains of North Carolina.
While I lay on the operating table, an abandoned factory a mile from my house silently seeped toxic chemicals into the creeks and valleys.
Yet no warnings were posted outside the gates. The polluted streams were not fenced off. Like the other neighborhood kids, I had no idea of the toxins lurking in our midst.
At its headquarters in Elkhart, Indiana, the company that polluted my hometown is alive and well. CTS Corporation set up its Asheville, North Carolina, factory in the 1950s to take advantage of right-to-work laws that kept workers from organizing, and it soon began to manufacture sensors and electronics components for the US military. When it finished electroplating, CTS dumped its leftover solvents out back. This desecration continued unabated for decades, until the company seized cheaper factories overseas and shut down its Asheville plant in April of 1986 – the very month that Chernobyl exploded.
The shuttering of the factory did not spell the end of the pollution, however, as chemicals continued to migrate from the dumping-ground into the local environment. In 1999, the carcinogen trichloroethylene (TCE), CTS’s primary solvent, tested in one woman’s well at far past the legal limit of five parts per billion: she was drinking 21,000. Thyroid cancer had struck her several years before.
The assault on human health did not end there: non-Hodkin’s lymphoma, birth defects, and liver and kidney disease showed up in droves. By the time of my diagnosis in 2005, such ailments had already taken a toll on my community. Over a single decade, one man lost ten family members to cancer.
When I woke from my surgery it was with a desire to get outside, to take to the woods as I had always done, for I had long found refuge on the mountaintops and deep in the glens. Affirming my relationship with the natural world was a healing process. And it would also be a healing process when, years later, I saw a news clip about the pollution in my backyard: coincidence crystallized into cause-and-effect, and I began to fight for cleanup. Just as my body had been rid of cancer, so too should the hills and waterways run clean.
In 2015, nearly three decades after CTS Corporation fled Asheville, precious little has been done to rectify the mess left behind. In 2012 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) placed the site on its Superfund inventory, a list of the most polluted sites in the country. But the agency has gone so far as to blame residents for the contamination, threatening to fine one man – whose well was polluted with TCE – $37,500 per day if he failed to release documents on materials in his house. The agency has also been slow to force CTS Corporation into any sort of action.
This is not just a problem in Asheville but at thousands of polluted sites across the country: the federal agency in charge of safeguarding human health and the environment panders to polluters and lacks the political wherewithal to make them rectify their injustices. The Superfund tax once held polluters liable for their refuse, but since it expired in 1996 Congress has failed to renew it.
Chemical legislation is no help either: when the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) became law in 1976, it grandfathered in 60,000 untested chemicals.
Five years ago a handful of Asheville residents, no longer content to wait for the EPA to act while CTS’s pollution spread, sued the company. The lawsuit wound up at the Supreme Court last year. The Obama Administration, the American Chemistry Council and the American Petroleum Institute all lent their support to CTS, threatened by the prospect of millions of dollars of cleanup costs. Had we prevailed, we would have set a precedent for communities like ours to hold polluters – including the federal government – accountable for eradicating their toxic waste. The justices, however, voted against us.
Time and again, the United States steps in to safeguard corporate profit in the face of outrageous suffering, threatening millions of Americans with exposure to pollution. When we speak of American freedom, we don’t often think of freedom from toxic chemicals or freedom from cancer. But it is just these freedoms that we need.