FLORENCE — Groundwater contamination on property along 17th Avenue South in Myrtle Beach could only have come from the AVX Corp. manufacturing facility, according to two geologists who testified Friday during the third day of a civil trial in federal court here.
The geologists - hired by Horry Land Co., which is suing AVX over the contamination - said groundwater and surface water flows directly from the manufacturer's site to the vacant Horry Land property across the street.
The geologists also disputed AVX's claim that some of the contamination came from the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base property, which is adjacent to the manufacturer. The geologists said water from the military sites flows in opposite directions - either toward the Intracoastal Waterway or toward the ocean through Midway Swash.
AVX lawyer Steven Weber cast doubt on the geologists' opinions during cross-examination, getting one to admit that groundwater from military operations could have traveled toward the Horry Land property.
Dennis O'Connell, a geologist with the Nutter & Associates consulting firm in Athens, Ga., did not dispute a 1999 state environmental report that showed groundwater at the former Myrtle Cinema 10 site along Kings Highway - where the military once had a motor repair shop - flowing toward Horry Land.
However, O'Connell said such a path would be unusual.
The groundwater from former military sites "was not flowing toward AVX and not toward Horry Land's property, so based on that I don't see how there could be a connection between any of the sites on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base and AVX or Horry Land," O'Connell said.
Most studies show groundwater from the AVX site flows northeast toward Withers Swash and then into the ocean - a path that cuts through Horry Land's property.
Wade Nutter, a geologist and president of Nutter & Associates, testified that surface water also flows from AVX toward Horry Land's site.
A drainage ditch that runs along the back side of the AVX property - where workers once regularly dumped used trichloroethylene, or TCE, onto the ground - also flows into Withers swash, Nutter said.
AVX has admitted it contaminated groundwater on Horry Land's property with TCE, a degreaser commonly used in the 1970s and '80s that now is suspected of causing cancer and other health problems. But the manufacturer said former military operations - including a pair of landfills, a motor repair shop and a golf course maintenance shop - on adjacent land could have caused some of the pollution.
AVX wants the military to share in the cleanup costs at the Horry Land site, which is estimated at $5 million.
The manufacturer also says Horry Land should pay some of the cleanup costs because environmental tests found chemicals on its property that AVX says it never used.
O'Connell, however, said those chemicals were used by AVX - either under other names, as part of a manufacturing process with other chemicals or as degradation byproducts of TCE and another degreaser called trichloroethane, or TCA.
Saunders Bridges Jr., a lawyer representing Horry Land, led O'Connell through a list of the chemicals AVX said it never used. In each instance, O'Connell said he found evidence in AVX documents that the chemicals in Horry Land groundwater had their origin with AVX.
Weber, however, said O'Connell generalized many of the chemicals and made assumptions about their use that was incorrect. For example, O'Connell said AVX had used one chemical - trichlorobenzene - because it was a solvent. Weber said the company did not use that chemical.
"So you're saying because it's used as a solvent, that knocks that one out?" Weber asked O'Connell, adding that there are thousands of solvents available for use by manufacturers.
Weber had objected to O'Connell's testimony as an expert witness, saying the geologist lacked experience in TCE contamination and environmental cleanup processes. Judge Terry Wooten, however, denied the company's request to block his testimony.
Weber also cast doubt on the geologists' preparation for the trial, saying they had not studied surface water and groundwater flow during the 1941-48 period when the military operated some of the land now owned by AVX. Weber said the geologists could not definitively rule out the military as a pollution source without those studies.
Nutter said he did not review the groundwater flow from the 1940s because there was not data available from that time period.
Nutter, under cross-examination, said a small amount of TCE was found at one sampling site north of AVX on land formerly owned by the Air Force. He also stated that it might be possible for surface water at that site to flow toward Horry Land's property, but a drainage ditch along that site would more likely send the runoff west.
Federal regulators say TCE has been shown to cause cancer, but the pollution on Horry Land's site is not considered a health hazard because it is not used for drinking water.
Environmental tests have shown TCE levels as high as 18,200 parts per billion in groundwater on the Horry Land site. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has set a maximum safe limit of five parts per billion for drinking water. Although the groundwater is not used for drinking water, it must be cleaned to that standard to meet state and federal regulations.
A part per billion is a scientific measurement equivalent to 3 seconds out of a century or one pinch of salt in 10 tons of potato chips.
Experts disagree over how long it will take to clean up the groundwater near AVX. The company's consultants say it can be cleaned within five years, while Horry Land's consultants say a cleanup could take decades.
AVX has been paying for studies to determine the best way to clean up the pollution and expects to use a process called enhanced reductive chlorination, in which a substance similar to molasses is injected into the groundwater. The molasses-like mixture creates bacteria that eat the TCE, breaking it down into harmless matter.
The trial that started Wednesday is expected to take several weeks, with both sides planning to call dozens of witnesses and present hundreds of documents. An eight-person jury of three women and five men ultimately will decide whether AVX owes Horry Land anything for the contamination.
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.