Consultants first warned AVX Corp. in June 1981 that cancer-causing chemicals it had dumped into groundwater at its 17th Avenue South facility in Myrtle Beach were migrating to adjacent property, city and private wells, and the Pee Dee aquifer, but the company chose to keep that information secret, according to evidence and testimony presented during a civil trial.
When AVX finally did tell state regulators in 1995 about contamination at its property, the company downplayed the extent of the problem and told regulators the pollution was confined to its own site, despite evidence to the contrary.
Reports showing AVX's knowledge of the migrating contamination were included in about 1,500 documents the company had tried to keep secret. A federal judge, however, ruled last year that AVX had to turn over the documents to Horry Land Co., an adjacent Myrtle Beach property owner that is suing the manufacturer over the pollution.
Horry Land discovered high levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the groundwater at its site across the street from AVX. Although Horry Land discovered the contamination in 2006, the previously secret reports show AVX knew the pollution was migrating toward the land 25 years earlier.
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Dennis Oldland - the environment and safety manager for AVX - said the company did nothing to determine how much pollution was migrating to other properties, including the Horry Land site.
"When AVX received the information [in 1981], they believed they could clean it up themselves," Oldland said during testimony this week.
AVX keeps quiet
Horry Land is suing AVX, claiming the pollution has ruined its property's value. Horry Land wants AVX to pay $5 million in actual damages and unspecified punitive damages.
Oldland said that in hindsight, AVX regrets its decision to keep the contamination secret for more than a decade before reporting it to the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control.
"If we had the knowledge we had today and knew the issues, we would have contacted DHEC as soon as we had the knowledge to get a better remediation program going and just to be a better neighbor," Oldland said.
Oldland, who has been with the AVX facility in Myrtle Beach since 1984, said he had not seen the documents showing AVX's long-term knowledge of the migrating pollution until about a month ago. That is when company executives asked him to review the paperwork in preparation for the Horry Land trial.
In addition to showing AVX knew about the pollution threat to other properties, the documents detail the company's attempts to keep that information from others, including state regulators and city officials.
For example, when a consultant investigated possible contamination of private wells on land near AVX, it was done "in a way to avoid arousing suspicions," according to a 1981 report.
The consultant also said that when talking with public officials about possible groundwater contamination, "care will be taken to camouflage AVX's identity."
Consultants' work ignored
AVX has admitted it contributed to pollution on the Horry Land site, but said some of the contamination came from the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base, which operated until 1993 and was located adjacent to the manufacturer's land. The military denies it caused any pollution on the Horry Land site.
The reports AVX kept hidden for nearly 30 years do not cite the Air Force base as a cause of the pollution, according to evidence presented Thursday.
A 1981 report from consultant Virginia Clark of Post, Buckley, Schuh and Jernigan states that "shallow groundwater is contaminated with carcinogens because of AVX activities."
In that report, Clark said a city water well near AVX property could be threatened, and the company needs to determine whether carcinogens are migrating toward the well because "immediate cleanup may be necessary."
No action was taken as a result of that report, Oldland said.
Concerns about increasing levels of pollution migrating from AVX to other properties were repeatedly made by consultants over the following years.
In late 1982, consultants said the contaminants appeared to be moving toward the ocean as well as adjacent properties, and "there is some risk of using the contaminated water by residents."
Oldland said AVX considered that risk to be low.
The pollution never threatened the city's water supply, experts have said, but possibly made its way into water wells used for irrigation, a backup water supply for firefighting and other purposes.
City spokesman Mark Kruea said Myrtle Beach got its drinking water from deep-water wells until 1997, but those wells drew from the Black Creek aquifer and not the Pee Dee aquifer.
City unaware of pollution
In 1983, Clark told AVX that it should consider reporting the pollution because the city was planning to install a shallow groundwater well near the company's site.
"Did AVX call the city and say, 'Before you put any wells there, you might want to know that we've contaminated the shallow aquifer?'" Horry Land lawyer Saunders Bridges Jr. asked Oldland.
Oldland said AVX did not notify the city at that time.
The cost of cleanup and possible regulatory fines appeared to play a role in AVX's decision to keep the pollution secret, according to the reports.
In an October 1982 letter from a consultant to AVX, the consultant states: "We realize the cost of cleanup appears high," then adds that "this cost must be weighed against potential regulatory action and civil liabilities."
In June 1995, John Gilbertson - now the company's president and chief executive - asked Oldland to meet with DHEC to disclose the contamination. Oldland said Gilbertson wanted to get DHEC's involvement because the company's own 14-year cleanup process wasn't working, and the company would need state permits to install a more effective process.
Oldland presented DHEC with a copy of a report by Geraghty & Miller - a new consultant that AVX hired - which stated the pollution was confined to the AVX site. DHEC has since supervised cleanup at the AVX site and, later, a roughly 10-block neighborhood where pollution has spread.
Oldland said the company did take steps throughout the 1980s to improve environmental issues at the Myrtle Beach site, even though it did not report the pollution to local or state officials. The company started limiting its use of TCE and eliminated it entirely by 1986, instituted stricter standards for handling of chemicals and created a task force to study environmental issues.
Cleanup time uncertain
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 equal 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 - which makes electronic components used in a range of consumer products, including cell phones and televisions - 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.
AVX used to have its worldwide headquarters in Myrtle Beach but moved the headquarters to Greenville in 2009.
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.