“Your Child Has Cancer” – My Odyssey Into Activism

Lee Ann's son Gabe, a cancer survivor, after being exposed to contaminants near their Asheville home.

Lee Ann’s son Gabe, a cancer survivor, after being exposed to contaminants near their Asheville home.

Editor’s Note: Lee Ann Smith is one of the presenters on our >>Advancing the Issues Call coming up on May 1st at 7pm

We encourage you to register for this free call: We Live Here: Environmental Stewardship in the Age of Polarization.


By Lee Ann Smith, Chair, POWER Action Group

Environmental activism had never been on my short-list of career choices. Sure, I love hiking, biking and floating the rivers, but figured some regulatory authority, organization, or someone else was doggedly looking out for the woods and waters that I enjoy. Then I became that “someone else.”

Twelve years ago these words brought me to my knees: “Your child has cancer.”

In some ways it seems a lifetime ago, yet still so very close. Gabe, now 23, is a healthy, glowing, effervescent young man who faced mortality too young. He wears survival as an unpretentious wisdom beyond his years.

Others in my community have likewise survived (and some have not) a common enemy: chemical contaminants that run from an abandoned factory into area streams, groundwater, soil, and sometimes volatilizing into the air. These carcinogens, the most predominant being trichloroethylene (TCE), were left in my beautiful mountain community (South Asheville) by CTS Corporation, which shuttered its electroplating facility decades ago.  The area is now on the EPA’s Superfund list of contaminated sites.

I learned about the abandoned facility when, several years after Gabe’s diagnosis, I began researching what could have caused his rare cancer. A question from Gabe’s pediatric oncologist kept haunting me. She wanted to know if our family had ever visited Chernobyl. Could an environmental malady be to blame for Gabe’s illness?

Soon enough, I discovered that TCE levels over 4,000 times the EPA’s allowable limit had been found in a nearby well; contaminants had been migrating unchecked for decades into groundwater, soil and air very near where my young children had played; and many people in the neighborhood had become sick. No warning signs were posted. Nothing was being done to halt the spread of the toxins at the site. And, there was no cleanup effort in place.

My life since has been a whirlwind of environmental advocacy, meetings with lawmakers and grant writing. I have learned that the path to environmental wellness is a hard, rocky road. But I, and a few others, founded POWER (Protecting Our Water and Environmental Resources) Action Group, to advocate for a full-scale cleanup of the CTS of Asheville Superfund site.

The work is unpaid, time-consuming and often frustrating. I am not a hydrogeologist, a chemical engineer or a water quality expert.

And sometimes I want to give up.

Then I remind myself, not of what I am not, but of who I am: a school librarian to children who breathe the air and play in the soil where these contaminants still lurk at unconscionably high levels; a mother of a child struck with an illness likely due to these environmental poisons; a nature-lover who religiously floats the French Broad.

Giving-up is not an option. Too much is at stake.  And I do believe that in my lifetime efforts to heal this area will come to fruition. In the meantime, children still play outside and we all breathe the air.



For more information visit www.POWERactiongroup.org


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