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AVX puts Myrtle Beach pollution blame on military

The U.S. military's careless handling practices and inadequate testing helped contribute to environmental contamination on Horry Land Co.'s property along 17th Avenue South in Myrtle Beach, a geologist said Thursday, and AVX Corp. wants the federal government to pay half of an estimated $6 million to clean up groundwater pollution at the site.

A civil trial involving the military and electronics components maker AVX moved into its second phase in federal court here, with Judge Terry Wooten set to determine what share both sides must pay to get rid of trichloroethylene, or TCE, contamination in Horry Land's groundwater.

Lawyers representing the U.S. say the federal government should not pay anything for cleanup because the military did not contribute to the pollution.

AVX earlier this week reached a confidential settlement with Horry Land over a property damage claim. Horry Land - which has property across the street from AVX - had been asking for at least $5 million in actual damages and unspecified punitive damages in the first phase of the civil trial, which was held before a jury.

The separate, nonjury phase of the trial opened with AVX lawyer Kevin Dunlap telling the judge that there were extensive military operations on land adjacent to and that now belongs to the manufacturer beginning during World War II and lasting until the Myrtle Beach Air Force Base closed in 1993. Dunlap said those operations - including two unlined landfills, a motor vehicle maintenance shop and a pesticide storagebuilding - contributed to the high levels of TCE found in 2006 in Horry Land's groundwater.

U.S. lawyer Meredith Weinberg said there is no record of the military using TCE on any of the former base properties east of the runway at Myrtle Beach International Airport - the side of the base where AVX and Horry Land are located. Weinberg said groundwater west of the runway flows in an opposite direction from AVX, so none of the contamination on that side of the base could be to blame.

"Nothing the military did contaminated the Horry Land property," Weinberg said.

However, AVX witness Steve Hart - a geologist with Charlotte, N.C., environmental consulting firm Hart & Hickman - said the military failed to properly test whether it had caused TCE contamination on and adjacent to the AVX property.

Hart said military operations west of the runway were similar to those east of the runway, so it makes no sense that TCE contamination would be limited to one side.

Hart said the military's handling of TCE and other chemicals often was careless. For example, the military had forgotten to hook up a drainage system at one building west of the runway, which resulted in TCE being dumped directly onto the ground for about 20 years. Groundwater contamination at that site now covers an area the size of 25 football fields.

The military also wrongly assumed that some buildings had no contamination, only to find out years later that there was extensive groundwater pollution beneath those properties.

And there was TCE contamination at other sites where the military had no record of ever using the chemical, Hart said. On one of those sites, TCE and pesticide pollution has migrated from the base to land owned by Burroughs & Chapin Co. Inc. near Emory Road.

Hart's testimony was to build AVX's case that if the poor handling and lack of documentation occurred west of the runway, it probably happened on the other side as well - contributing to the Horry Land pollution.

Hart also stated the military records show solvents such as TCE were dumped into a pair of unlined landfills near AVX. The military dug those landfills to or just above the water table, he said, which would allow chemicals to quickly disperse through the groundwater.

Hart questioned the military's environmental tests in that area, which showed no TCE contamination. He said those tests consisted of just four Coke-can-size wells installed at a 12- to 15-foot depth. Contamination on the Horry Land property is between 25 and 40 feet deep.

The military's test wells "weren't deep enough," Hart said. "If you're only sampling shallow groundwater, you would conclude that there is no contamination."

AVX lawyer Steven Weber asked Hart whether contamination ever would have been found on Horry Land's site if the test wells had only reached a 15-foot depth. Hart replied that the TCE would not have been discovered at that depth.

Andrew Doyle, a lawyer representing the U.S., said during cross-examination of Hart that the geologist had not studied AVX documents from 1981-95 that showed the company dumped high levels of TCE onto its property.

AVX is scheduled to present more witnesses today, followed by two days next week of testimony and evidence from the U.S.

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