A federal judge ruled this week that AVX Corp. is 100 percent responsible for the groundwater contamination discovered on adjacent property and the manufacturer must pay all of the costs associated with cleaning that groundwater to safe environmental standards.
AVX, during a trial earlier this year, estimated the cleanup will cost about $6 million.
AVX - which has a facility on 17th Avenue South in Myrtle Beach - had argued that at least some of the contamination came from the former Myrtle Beach Air Force base, which was adjacent to the electronic components manufacturer. The manufacturer wanted a judge to force the military to pay for some of the cleanup.
Judge Terry Wooten said in an order made public on Friday that groundwater from the Air Force base and former military properties does not travel in the direction of property owned by Horry Land Co., where contamination by an industrial degreaser called trichloroethylene - or TCE - was discovered.
Wooten said groundwater does flow from AVX toward Horry Land and, therefore, the manufacturer can be the only source of the pollution.
"The court finds the magnitude of TCE contamination directly attributable to AVX significant," Wooten said in his order. He added that any contamination "that may have been present on these [military] properties did not migrate to the Horry Land property."
The ruling appears to bring an end to a 31/2-year legal battle over who should pay for cleanup costs at Horry Land's property, which is across the street from AVX.
Kevin Dunlap, a lawyer who represents AVX, could not be reached for comment.
Wyn Hornbuckle, a spokesman for the U.S. Justice Department, said, "We are pleased with the outcome."
Saunders Bridges Jr., a lawyer who represents Horry Land, said he expects AVX will appeal the ruling.
"I'm not surprised by the judge's ruling; I think it was an appropriate one," Bridges said.
During the trial held this year, AVX reached a confidential settlement with Horry Land over claims that the pollution had halted Horry Land's development plans and ruined property values.
The manufacturer, however, continued with a second phase of the trial to determine how cleanup costs should be divided between AVX and the military. It was the second phase of that trial Wooten ruled on this week.
In addition, there are two pending civil cases in state court filed by other property owners who say contamination from AVX ruined their property values.
Bridges, who represents a family that wanted to build a condominium project on land near AVX, said he is not sure how the federal ruling will affect that case.
Gene Connell, who represents property owners in a class action lawsuit filed against AVX, said the federal ruling is good news for his case.
"The issue of whether the government is liable is resolved," Connell said. "This will help everyone who has TCE contamination on their property because the defense that the government did it is over. It's all AVX."
No trial date has been set for either of the pending civil trials.
Wooten, in his order, pointed to overwhelming evidence that AVX was the sole source of contamination on Horry Land's property.
For example, trial exhibits showed an insurance company risk assessor told AVX in 1981 that as much as 6,200 gallons of TCE was being spilled into the ground each month at the 17th Avenue South facility. Another document showed that an underground tank and piping system used to store and pump TCE to the facility was faulty.
The AVX system "has apparently been a source of releases of liquids to the environment through tank leaks and overflows, piping breaks and similar spill incidents over a period of many years of use," the document stated.
Testimony by an AVX executive also showed that for years employees routinely dumped TCE waste into a ditch behind the manufacturing plant.
It is estimated that TCE levels in groundwater at the AVX site reached 1 million parts per billion in the early 1980s. The federal government has set a maximum safe level of five parts per billion. TCE levels on the Horry Land site were as high as 18,200 parts per billion when first tested in 2006.
Wooten also stated that expert witnesses called by Horry Land and the military were more credible and persuasive than those called by AVX, which he said in some instances "drew broad conclusions from more speculative evidence."
Testimony and exhibits presented during the trial showed AVX officials knew as early as June 1981 that TCE was potentially spreading through groundwater from the manufacturer's site to adjacent properties, threatening city and private wells and the Pee Dee aquifer.
Over the years, that contamination has spread to groundwater in a roughly 10-block Myrtle Beach neighborhood northeast of AVX's facility.
Despite consultants' repeated warnings that testing was necessary, court testimony shows the company did nothing for decades to determine whether the pollution was a threat to its neighbors. When AVX finally told state regulators about the contamination in 1995, testimony showed the company downplayed the problem and said it was limited to the manufacturer's site.
Much of the trial evidence showing AVX's attempts to hide the pollution from the public and regulators came from 1,500 pages of documents that AVX had tried to keep secret. Wooten, however, ruled last year that the documents had to be shared with Horry Land and the military.
Federal regulators say TCE has been shown to cause cancer, but the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control does not consider the pollution on Horry Land's site and in the 10-block neighborhood to be a health hazard 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.
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 - which moved its world headquarters from Myrtle Beach to Greenville in 2009 - 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 molasseslike mixture creates bacteria that eat the TCE, breaking it down into harmless matter.
Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.