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AVX pollution steps closer to resolution

A federal judge on Thursday said two lawsuits that claim AVX Corp. ruined property values by polluting the groundwater in a Myrtle Beach neighborhood should be tried in an S.C. circuit court.

The lawsuits _ a class-action case involving about 200 people and another case filed by the would-be developers of a condominium project _ seek unspecified financial compensation for property that owners say is worthless because of the contamination from a degreaser called trichloroethylene, also known as TCE.

AVX had wanted to try the cases in federal court along with a third lawsuit that involves federal Superfund laws. Superfund is a federal program to clean up hazardous waste sites. The company has indicated it will appeal Thursday's decision to the U.S. District Court.

Meanwhile, dozens of area residents attended a pair of meetings Thursday in which the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control explained efforts to clean up the pollution in a roughly 10-block neighborhood between AVX's headquarters on 17th Avenue South and Withers Swash.

``It won't be a lot of years but, yes, we're looking at years'' to clean up the contamination, said Carol Minsk, a geologist and DHEC's project manager for the cleanup. ``Hopefully, in five years we can see a dramatic difference in concentration.''

The most recent groundwater test results, taken in May, show TCE levels are still hundreds of times higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum drinking water standards. The groundwater near AVX is not used for drinking water and does not pose a health risk, according to DHEC, but it still must be cleaned to that standard.

Minsk told residents that initial tests look promising for a cleanup method that involves injecting molasses into the groundwater. That molasses creates bacteria which breaks down the TCE, a carcinogen, into a harmless substance.

DHEC will test the method for the rest of this year and a final cleanup plan could be ready by next spring.

``It's not going to be quick, but we're making progress,'' Minsk said.

Marvin Nance, who owns rental property near AVX, said Thursday's meeting helped affirm his belief that the contamination does not pose a health risk.

``The financial concern is a whole different story,'' he said.

Nance said his tenants have expressed concerns about living in the area and said the pollution has ruined business opportunities.

``Whenever anyone hears about the slightest hint of contamination, they don't want anything to do with the property,'' Nance said. ``As bad as the economy is now, this is just another nail in the coffin.''

The two lawsuits that have been sent back to state court focus on the economic impact of the contamination.

In Thursday's court order, Judge Thomas Rogers said there was no merit to AVX's argument that the property owners' lawsuits were a challenge to the company's cleanup plan, which is regulated by Superfund laws.

Rogers said the property owners' claims ``would not alter the terms of the [cleanup] work plan'' and that they ``only seek the payment of money damages based on AVX's alleged liability'' under S.C. law.

Gene Connell, a Surfside Beach lawyer who represents property owners in the class-action case, said he was pleased with the decision.

``The judge said it is clearly a state law claim,'' Connell said. ``It was a very well-reasoned, well-researched and sound decision.''

Kevin Dunlap, a lawyer representing AVX, could not be reached for comment.

The move to state court means the lawsuits could be resolved more quickly, because the complicated Superfund laws will not play a role.

Rogers on Thursday also gave AVX more time to show why hundreds of documents should be kept secret that detail, among other things, the company's attempts to cover up the pollution.

A hearing on that issue will be held May 27 in Florence.

AVX learned in 1981 that its use of TCE had contaminated groundwater at the manufacturer's 17th Avenue South headquarters. The company spent the next 14 years secretly trying to clean up the pollution before informing DHEC of the problem in 1995.

Dunlap has said the documents should be kept secret because they include technical advice consultants were giving at the time to the manufacturer's lawyers.

Saunders Bridges Jr., a lawyer for condominium developers and Horry Land Co., has said the documents will expose how the contamination occurred, what efforts were made to clean it and who made the decision to keep it a secret.

In addition to the class-action lawsuit, David Nance and Steve Nance _ partners in JDS Development of Myrtle Beach Inc. _ say they lost bank financing for their Southern Pines Villas condo project shortly after the groundwater contamination was discovered.

Southern Pines Villas was to have been built at the intersection of 17th Avenue South and Beaver Road, across the street from AVX. The land remains undeveloped.

In a separate ruling, Rogers said he will add the U.S. Air Force as a third-party defendant to the Horry Land Co. lawsuit.

AVX claims the military is responsible for some of the contamination because it used TCE at the adjacent former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

DHEC has said there is no indication any of the contamination came from the Air Force base. David Fishback, a lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice, has said the ``likelihood that there was TCE involvement by the U.S. is extremely remote, if not nil.''

Even so, the Air Force will be a part of federal proceedings to determine how much of the pollution was caused by AVX, the military and Horry Land Co. That lawsuit will determine who will pay for the cleanup and whether Horry Land Co. is entitled to any compensation from AVX.

The Air Force will not be a part of the lawsuits that will be heard in state court.

AVX for decades used TCE to clean equipment at its headquarters, and the pollution caused by that use violated state and federal laws, according to a 1996 consent order issued by state regulators.

DHEC ordered AVX to clean up the pollution on its site and pay a $7,500 fine.

State regulators learned in 2007 that the contamination had spread to adjacent properties, and the first of the three lawsuits was filed late that year.

Contact DAVID WREN at 626-0281.

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