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AVX trial looks at cleanup in Myrtle Beach

An expert who is studying groundwater contamination on property adjacent to the AVX Corp. manufacturing facility in Myrtle Beach said Wednesday the extent of the pollution has not yet been determined, making it impossible to say how long cleanup will take.

The statement by Heyward Key, a geologist with the S&ME environmental consulting firm in Conway, contradicts AVX's contention that it can clean up groundwater pollution on Horry Land Co.'s adjacent property within five years.

Key said an assessment of the pollution has to be completed before any cleanup timeline can be established, and the assessment is ongoing.

Key's testimony came during the opening day of testimony in a trial to determine whether AVX should pay Horry Land Co. for trichloroethylene - or TCE - contamination that migrated through groundwater from the manufacturer's site to adjacent property along 17th Avenue South.

Horry Land says the contamination has rendered its property worthless, and it wants AVX to pay $5 million in actual damages plus unspecified punitive damages.

"We think this is one of those rare cases where punitive damages are not only justified, they're mandatory - not just for Horry Land, but for anybody whose property is next door to a manufacturer," said Saunders Bridges Jr., a lawyer representing Horry Land.

Kevin Dunlap, a lawyer representing AVX, said Horry Land's lawsuit is an attempted money grab, because the property can be developed even while an environmental cleanup takes place.

Dunlap said Horry Land had not tried to sell or lease its property for decades. Horry Land claimed it wanted to develop the property only after the contamination was discovered, he said.

"Horry Land is looking for a windfall," Dunlap said. "AVX is not responsible for providing a windfall to a real estate development company whose property has sat idle for 88 years."

Alex Spivey - president of Horry Land, which acquired the property across from AVX in 1923 - said the company had several offers to lease the land in the months before pollution was discovered in 2006.

The company had even signed an agreement with the Catawba Indian Nation, which wanted to build a casino on the property, according to documents introduced as evidence on Wednesday.

Spivey said his company also hired a Myrtle Beach real estate broker to market the property, but all projects were halted when the contamination was discovered.

"It killed any plans of going forward," Spivey said.

Dunlap said he believes at least some of the TCE contamination came from the military when the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base - which is adjacent to AVX - was active. Dunlap said the military also had a motor repair shop and two unlined landfills on property near AVX that could have been the source of some contamination.

"Do you think they never spilled a drop?" Dunlap asked, referring to the military's use of TCE and other chemicals near the Horry Land site. "There is significant military contamination."

Bridges called the military contamination a "red herring" designed to take the focus off AVX, which admitted to state regulators in 1995 that it secretly tried to clean up large TCE spills on its property since 1981 with little success.

"What we came to find out was that AVX found out about the contamination as early as 1981, and for 14 years, they did not tell anybody about it," Bridges said. "They were very careful, to be sure, that nobody found out."

State regulators learned in 2006 that the contamination had migrated from AVX's property to groundwater in a roughly 10-block neighborhood adjacent to the manufacturer. The company has conducted studies since then to determine the extent of the contamination, which has yet to be defined.

Key said AVX is trying to learn how deep the contamination is on Horry Land's property. The company installed a well in January, he said, that showed TCE contamination above regulatory limits at depths near 80 feet.

"At that depth, it's still not defined," he said. "And that's just one location of the entire plume."

TCE is a degreaser that was commonly used in the 1970s by the military and businesses to clean equipment. Federal regulators say the chemical 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.