ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — Developer Richard Green had nearly everything in place to build upscale homes on the heavily polluted land next to an old electronic components plant in the mountains outside Asheville. All he needed was a permit.
So when the local board of adjustment asked whether the site had hazardous materials, Green said there was only a slight level of the cancer-causing industrial solvent trichloroethylene, or TCE, below the factory. He then said he had a letter from state environmental regulators saying they were OK with the construction plans. They say they weren't.
Another developer, Stanley Greenberg, told the board that federal environmental regulators also had given a green light to build. They say they hadn't.
By the time of that August 1997 meeting, Greenberg and the partners had known about the contamination at the plant for a decade and were preparing to sell much of the land to Green for development of a project called Southside Village, according to an Associated Press review of documents that reveal how a subdivision came to be built next door to what is now a Superfund site.
Two years ago, the EPA named the 9 acres beneath and immediately around the former CTS Corp. factory among the nation's worst abandoned hazardous waste sites.
"Who's going to buy property ... next to a Superfund site?" said Judy Selz, who did purchase 3 acres in Southside Village in 2006 — six years before the Superfund designation — and is one of dozens of land and homeowners worried now about whether it's safe to live there.
The nightmare scenario for Southside Village residents is already playing out for about a dozen residents of Skyland, a neighborhood of older homes on the other side of the old plant. This summer, the EPA urged three families to abandon their homes, citing unsafe levels of TCE. The agency declared it safe enough for them to return in mid-November after contractors set up a vacuum-like device to catch chemical vapors rising from a spring.
Selz and her husband planned to build a retirement home in Southside Village, but now they say they likely won't move forward.
Regulators with the Environmental Protection Agency and the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources recently told the AP they had no idea about the planned development when Green and Greenberg were seeking the county board's permission to build. Both agencies said the extensive archival searches they conducted in response to the AP's public records requests turned up no documents supporting Green's and Greenberg's claims about having letters from regulators promising not to intervene on the property that would become Southside Village.
The Buncombe County Board of Adjustment approved the project without asking to see any documentation verifying those claims, according to the minutes of that meeting and interviews with Jim Coman, who was the county zoning administrator at the time, and Dave Ogren, an alternate board member who was also there and who had complained to regulators years earlier about contamination in older homes nearby.
"We were duped," said Ogren, who wasn't called on to vote in that meeting since enough board members were present.
Paperwork for Greenberg's 1987 purchase of the property included a report documenting elevated levels of TCE and other contaminants in the ground. And a follow-up study in 1991 found TCE and other chemicals in a stream in an area that is now part of Southside Village, according to the AP's review.
Reached twice by phone earlier this year, Greenberg declined to comment, as did executives at CTS, based in Elkhart, Indiana.
According to the minutes of the 1997 meeting, Greenberg told the board the EPA had issued a "no action" letter for the entire CTS property, meaning the agency didn't plan any enforcement against its owners. But the EPA had a policy dating to 1984 of forbidding such letters, precisely because they could interfere with later enforcement.
In an email to the AP on Tuesday, Greenberg's attorney, Philip Anderson, didn't dispute the details contained in the meeting minutes. He said that the federal agency recommended "no further action status" after the 1991 environmental study. The study itself, however, and related documents show only that the EPA granted the site "no further remedial action" status, which would have meant merely that there were no immediate plans for additional cleanup — not that the site was no longer contaminated.
For his part, Green told the board he had a no action letter from state environmental regulators. The Department of Environment and Natural Resources not only found no such letter in its archives, but memos denying Greenberg's request for just such a letter, on the grounds that the entire property was still contaminated.
Green now has a new company, Green Mountain Realty, that bills its homes as environmentally friendly.
Answering the door at his luxury home high on a mountaintop near Asheville, Green shrugged when confronted with the details of the board meeting and the development that sprang from it, including why his company never disclosed the contamination to prospective homebuyers in Southside Village.
"What do you want me to say?" he asked, before stepping back inside.
Nearly all of the two dozen homeowners the AP interviewed in and around Southside Village said they believe the contamination had caused serious health problems, including cancer, despite a 2011 study by the state Department of Health and Human Services found no evidence of elevated cancer rates around the CTS property.
"It's something you're always worried about," said Peter Waldburger, whose condominium, bought a decade ago, sits 50 yards from the old factory that multiple EPA reports pinpoint as the source of the TCE vapors that have seeped up in the neighborhood.
Waldburger and his neighbors worry about not just their health, but their property value, and the proximity to the plant has derailed at least one deal.
In 2012, after his father passed away, Frederick Kenyon hired a broker to list the gated-community home his father had bought from Green's company for $275,000 in 1999. After about six months on the market, he finally got an offer, from a pregnant woman who also had a 3-year-old.
Jennifer Lane, who was moving from San Francisco, said the only person who mentioned CTS was a home inspector, who mentioned it briefly but said not to worry about it. She eventually looked it up anyway: "I said, 'Oh my God.'"
A week before closing, she walked away from the deal. Kenyon, who needed two more sellers' agents and six more months to sell the property, said he understood.
"If I'm new to the area and buying and I came across this information and I had other choices, I'd go to the other choices," he said.
The CTS plant manufactured electronic parts for cars and hearing aids; workers had handled toxic chemicals, including TCE. Exposure to high levels of the cleaning solvent can cause liver and lung damage and even death, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.
Shortly after CTS closed its factory in 1986 and prepared to sell the land, an environmental testing firm hired by CTS found nearly a dozen areas of "potential environmental concerns," including soil samples with elevated levels of TCE. Despite the contamination, which was reported to the EPA, Greenberg and his partners bought the entire property, more than 50 acres' worth, in December 1987 for $540,000.
A second environmental firm, this one hired by the EPA, found elevated levels of contaminants including TCE in the "soil, sediment and surface water samples at elevated levels" on the factory grounds in 1991, according to the firm's report. Though the report's authors didn't specify how dangerous that was, they expressed concern that neighboring residents might be exposed to toxic chemicals through the air and water.
Neither firm drilled test wells to sample the groundwater flowing from under the old plant, something EPA documents show was originally planned. If groundwater samples had been taken, it likely would have shown the plume of pollution that was spreading beneath the ground, said Jeff Wilcox, a hydrogeology professor at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, who has studied the case. "Every day this goes on, contaminants spread further," he said.
The state environmental department took supervision of the entire site in 1991, placing it on the state's Inactive Hazardous Sites Priority List, a classification that can make it difficult to develop the property until it's cleaned up. Greenberg and his partners asked the department in 1995 to remove the site from the list, including the acres on which Southside Village would be built just a few years later. But the agency refused, saying the contamination was a threat to the community, according to a 1995 memo to Greenberg and his partners from Hanna Assefa, an environmental toxicologist with the agency.
A few months later, however, the entire property was one of 24,000 sites purged from the EPA's national list of active hazardous waste sites in a bookkeeping move meant to reduce a backlog. The sites were archived in the system so if the agency received new information they could reopen the case, said Jennifer Wendel, a National Priorities List coordinator with the EPA's Atlanta office. Just because a site was taken off the active list didn't mean it was safe, she said. The contamination was still there.
With the development approved, Greenberg's company sold about 45 acres of the CTS site to Green's Biltmore Group, which has no connections to the Biltmore, the Vanderbilt family estate that is a major tourist draw to Asheville. Greenberg kept about 9 acres that included the old factory building.
Four months after the county adjustment board meeting, the state environmental department sent Greenberg a letter ordering him to file a document with the county register of deeds warning the public of the toxic contamination. State law requires that such documents include "the type, location, and quantity of hazardous substances known by the owner of the site to exist on the site."
But Greenberg had already transferred most of the contaminated property to Green.
Records at the Buncombe County Register of Deeds show the document, called a plat, that Greenberg filed for the 9 acres containing the old CTS building said the land contained some silver and dichloroethylene. There's no mention of the elevated levels of TCE or any of the other chemicals that the two site studies and 1992 and 1995 memos from state regulators say had been detected.
The paperwork filed by Biltmore Group for the 45 acres where Southside Village would be built contained no disclosures about the contamination at all.
It's illegal in North Carolina to knowingly record inaccurate information on a plat. And the state environmental department can force developers to "record a correct notice." But regulators didn't catch the sale.
"Somebody should have looked at that (Greenberg) plat and said, 'You know, there's 44 acres missing here. We need to take a close look at what happened,'" said Jeff Stahl, an attorney representing Skyland residents who sued CTS in 2011; the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them this year, saying they had waited too long to sue.
Todd Williams, the incoming district attorney for Buncombe County, declined to comment on the transactions that led to Southside Village getting built. Speaking generally, he said that failing to disclose to buyers "relevant information of contamination at sites" could be a crime.
In the summer of 1999, Skyland residents reported diesel-like odors to the EPA, whose investigators arrived and found TCE at 4,200 times the federal safety limit for drinking water in a spring that fed one resident's well.
They also discovered another problem: Southside Village. A development that today includes more than 70 units had sprung up on the other side of the plant.
Even though Southside Village was part of the original waste site and had areas of possible contamination, regulators focused their testing over the years on the older homes and the area around the factory, believing Southside Village was safer since it was hooked up to city water lines.
But as a plume of pollution spread beneath the ground, TCE vapors rose inside Southside Village as well, according to an EPA-commissioned report from 2008.
In 2004, Greenberg's group and CTS signed an agreement with the EPA to provide to help pay to clean up the factory site itself. In 2006, workers used a vacuum-like device to suck 6,000 pounds of solvents from soil under the old plant.
However, testing by the EPA as recently as this spring still showed contamination spreading from the plant.
The EPA says a more complete cleanup won't begin until 2016 — 30 years after CTS closed its factory.
"I wish it went faster," agency spokeswoman Samantha Urquhart-Foster said, "but it's a slow process."
Biesecker reported from Raleigh. Follow him at Twitter.com/mbieseck. Follow Weiss at Twitter.com/mitchsweiss.