Myrtle Beach officials consider legal action over AVX pollution

Source: http://www.thesunnews.com, March 10, 2011
By: David Wren

Myrtle Beach officials say they are concerned that groundwater contamination from AVX Corp. might be more widespread than previously thought, and they are looking into whether legal action is warranted against the manufacturer.

“We want to know what liability they [AVX] have to the city and to the residents that live in that area,” Mayor John Rhodes said Wednesday. “We’re looking at the impact this has had on those residents’ welfare and the value of their property. Also, what impact the negative publicity will have on the city.”

Rhodes said more information will be gathered before the city makes any decisions. The City Council received a legal briefing on the issue during its meeting Tuesday.

AVX officials could not be reached for comment.

The council’s concerns were spurred by a new map that shows groundwater contamination spreading from AVX’s facility on 17th Avenue South as far north as 5th Avenue South. The pollution is mostly confined to an area between Kings Highway and Beaver Road, its width narrowing the farther north it travels from AVX.

However, the map also shows contamination moving east of Kings Highway at about 12th Avenue South and into groundwater beneath hotels and businesses in the tourism district moving north – as close as two blocks from the beach. Experts say some contamination likely empties into the Atlantic Ocean through Withers Swash.

“While it is not a dramatically larger footprint of the contamination, it certainly is the largest assessment I believe to date,” city attorney Tom Ellenburg told council members.

The map of groundwater contaminated by the degreaser trichloroethylene, or TCE, was drawn by Charles Fetter, a hydrologist for 35 years and the author of geology textbooks used by graduate programs and universities.

Fetter did not conduct his own testing but relied on data from AVX, the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control and depositions from project managers working to clean up the pollution.

Fetter produced the map for Surfside Beach lawyer Gene Connell, who represents property owners suing AVX over the contamination. The map was included in court documents filed last month in Conway.

Fetter said in an affidavit that the map is “to a reasonable degree of engineering and hydrogeology certainty, an accurate depiction of the area to the north of the AVX plant where the groundwater has been impacted by dissolved TCE.”

AVX has admitted polluting the city’s groundwater with TCE, but it disputes the extent of that contamination. AVX also stated in an ongoing federal lawsuit that some of the TCE could have migrated from the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, which closed in 1993.

A federal judge is expected to rule this week on whether the military was responsible for some of the contamination and, if so, how much it should pay to clean it up.

Part of the federal lawsuit was settled last week when Horry Land Co., which owns property adjacent to AVX, reached a confidential agreement with the manufacturer over property damage claims.

Testimony and evidence presented before that agreement was reached, however, showed AVX officials knew as early as June 1981 that contamination was spreading from its facility to adjoining properties.

That evidence – included in previously secret correspondence and environmental reports from AVX consultants -directly contradicts the company’s repeated statements to state regulators and the public that it did not know about the spreading pollution.

“That bothers all of us,” said City Councilman Randal Wallace. “They are part of the community and you would like to think you can trust what they’re telling you.”

AVX – which moved its world headquarters from Myrtle Beach to Greenville in 2009 – had tried to keep the documents from coming out in the civil trial, but a federal judge last year ruled that Horry Land had the right to view them. The documents became public when they were introduced as evidence in the trial.

DHEC officials said last week they will review that evidence to see if a criminal investigation of AVX is warranted.

Rhodes said the council likely will discuss AVX at its next meeting on March 22.

Federal regulators say TCE has been shown to cause cancer, but the pollution on Horry Land’s site and in the contaminated neighborhood is not considered a health hazard by state regulators because it is not used for drinking water.

Even though it is not a drinking source, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires that the groundwater’s TCE levels be reduced to no more than five parts per billion. A part per billion is a scientific measurement equivalent to 3 seconds out of a century.

Groundwater tests have shown TCE contamination as high as 18,200 parts per billion on property near AVX.

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