Jury selected for Myrtle Beach groundwater pollution trial

dwren@thesunnews.comJuly 22, 2013 

— A jury of nine women and three men will decide whether polluted groundwater from electronics manufacturer AVX Corp. was responsible for the failure of a condominium project in Myrtle Beach.

The 12-person panel and four alternates were chosen Monday from a pool of 400 people who received a jury summons for the second of three civil cases over whether groundwater contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE, has damaged property values in a roughly 10-block neighborhood north of AVX’s facility on 17th Avenue South in Myrtle Beach.

AVX settled the first of those lawsuits in 2011 and a class-action lawsuit is pending with no trial date scheduled.

In the current lawsuit, developers JDS Development of Myrtle Beach Inc. claim groundwater containing TCE, an industrial degreaser, migrated from the AVX site to their property, causing the developer’s bank to withdraw a construction loan for their planned Southern Pines condo project at the intersection with Beaver Road. JDS Development is asking for unspecified damages for its 4.4-acre parcel and the lack of income that would have been generated by condo sales.

AVX denies the allegations and is expected to argue that the real estate collapse – not polluted groundwater – caused the project’s demise. The company says groundwater pollution does not hinder development and is not permanent. AVX has started a cleanup process that could dilute TCE levels in the groundwater to meet federal standards within five years.

The large jury pool was whittled to about 60 people by lunch break and other potential jurors were eliminated later because of personal or business relationships with those involved in the case or because they own property within the boundary where pollution exists.

This case – originally filed in January 2008 – was supposed to go to trial last year, but too few potential jurors showed up during the first day of jury selection and the trial had to be delayed.

AVX has admitted that it caused some of the area’s groundwater contamination 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 says former military operations – including a pair of landfills, a motor repair shop and a golf course maintenance shop – on adjacent land could have contributed to the pollution.

Environmental tests have shown TCE levels as high as 18,200 parts per billion in groundwater in the contaminated neighborhood, which spreads from the AVX site on 17th Avenue South to 5th Avenue South. 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.

AVX in 2011 settled a similar pollution lawsuit filed by Horry Land Co. – which owned property across the street from the manufacturer – just as a federal jury trial in Florence was entering its fourth day. AVX agreed to purchase Horry Land’s 21.5–acre parcel after testimony and trial documents showed the company knew about the pollution since at least 1981 but did not try to stop its migration and did not inform adjoining land owners, city, state or federal officials about the problem.

The JDS Development trial is expected to last two weeks. Judge Benjamin Culbertson is presiding over the case at the Horry County courthouse.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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