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AVX says land values not tainted by pollution

Myrtle Beach-based AVX Corp. will ask a federal judge next month to dismiss damage claims in an environmental contamination lawsuit in which the manufacturer is accused of polluting groundwater with trichloroethylene, or TCE, a toxic chemical that has been linked with cancer and other health problems.

AVX, in court documents filed in advance of the Nov. 10 hearing in Florence, says the lawsuit should be dismissed because there is no evidence the contamination has created a financial hardship for neighboring property owner Horry Land Co., which first discovered the pollution more than two years ago.

Horry Land, which owns the property across the street from AVX's 17th Avenue South headquarters, is fighting the manufacturer's attempt to obtain a summary judgment in the case. Horry Land says the pollution has cost the company at least $5.4 million because its property now is worthless.

Both sides will argue their case next month, but it is not clear when Judge Terry Wooten will make a ruling.

Meanwhile, two other pollution-related lawsuits filed against AVX have stalled in state court while lawyers compile and review documents in preparation for trials, which have not been scheduled. Those cases include a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of residents living near AVX and another lawsuit filed by a condominium developer who claims the pollution ruined plans for a project on land near the manufacturer. All of the owners are seeking unspecified damages, claiming the pollution has ruined their property values.

All of the lawsuits allege that AVX contaminated groundwater at neighboring properties with TCE, an industrial degreaser. AVX used the degreaser to clean equipment for decades before stopping in the 1980s. Some of the chemical was dumped onto the ground at AVX during those years and more of it leaked from underground storage tanks on the manufacturer's property. In the decades since AVX stopped using the chemical, the TCE has migrated through groundwater to adjoining properties in a roughly 10-block neighborhood, according to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The groundwater is not used as a drinking water source, and DHEC says the pollution does not pose a health problem. However, the federal government requires the groundwater to be cleaned to drinking water standards, which allows TCE at concentrations of no more than five parts per billion. TCE levels as high as 18,200 parts per billion have been recorded in groundwater near the AVX site.

Horry Land also alleges that AVX dumped truckloads of dirt contaminated with TCE onto its property in the 1990s. AVX leased the Horry Land property for 25 years and used the site as an employee parking lot. That lease expired in 2006, and Horry Land was considering redeveloping the land when it discovered the contamination.

AVX says in court documents that any decline in property values is temporary because the groundwater can be cleaned up, although it could take years before TCE is reduced to levels the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe. AVX lawyer Kevin Dunlap also said in court documents that real estate sales show there has been no impact on property values near the manufacturer's site.

Horry Land says AVX has built its case for a summary judgment on irrelevant and misleading information, such as real estate and business transactions that are unrelated to the contaminated property.

AVX learned in 1981 that its use of TCE had contaminated groundwater at the manufacturer's headquarters. The company spent the next 14 years secretly trying to clean up the pollution before informing DHEC of the problem in 1995. DHEC now is working with AVX to develop a cleanup plan for the neighborhood. In 1996, DHEC issued a consent order stating that AVX had violated numerous state and federal pollution laws. The manufacturer was fined $7,000 and agreed to clean up its property as part of that order.