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AVX ruling to come at end of March; Military may share blame

12-03-09/Thursday----A shipping company unloads supplies on Thursday at AVX Corp. in Myrtle Beach.

The company announced Thursday they will be moving corporate headquarters to the Greenville area.

Photo By Randall Hill
12-03-09/Thursday----A shipping company unloads supplies on Thursday at AVX Corp. in Myrtle Beach. The company announced Thursday they will be moving corporate headquarters to the Greenville area. Photo By Randall Hill The Sun News

A federal judge will rule by the end of this month on whether the U.S. military must help AVX Corp. pay to clean up contaminated groundwater in Myrtle Beach.

Testimony concluded this week in Florence in a civil trial over property damage claims stemming from groundwater contaminated with the degreaser trichloroethylene. Horry Land Co., which owns property adjacent to AVX on 17th Avenue South, sued the manufacturer over the contamination and the two sides reached a confidential settlement agreement last week.

AVX then argued during a second phase of the trial that the military helped contribute to the contamination because it used trichloroethylene, or TCE, at the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

AVX - which admits it contributed to pollution on Horry Land's property - said some of the TCE could have migrated from the base, which was on land adjacent to the manufacturer. The Air Force base closed in 1993 as part of federal cost-savings initiatives.

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.

Judge Terry Wooten's ruling will determine whether the military contributed to the pollution and, if so, what percentage of cleanup costs it should pay.

The federal trial only concerned Horry Land's property, but the ruling could help set a precedent for future lawsuits over TCE contamination that has spread from AVX to a roughly 10-block neighborhood in Myrtle Beach.

Two lawsuits against AVX are pending in state court - a class action lawsuit filed by a group of residents who say their property values have been hurt by the contamination and another lawsuit by a developer who claims the pollution scuttled a condominium project.

Steve Hart, a geologist with Charlotte, N.C.-based consulting firm Hart & Hickman, testified during the Horry Land trial that the military's careless handling practices and inadequate testing helped contribute to pollution on the property.

Hart said 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 the chemicals to quickly disperse through groundwater toward Horry Land's site.

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

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.

Geologist Dennis O'Connell, an expert witness for Horry Land and the U.S. government, said he believes all of the TCE on Horry Land's property came from AVX. That matches the assessment by Carol Minsk, a geologist with the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control. Minsk is overseeing cleanup of the groundwater for the state regulator.

O'Connell said during the trial that groundwater from AVX flows directly toward Horry Land's site.

Groundwater from the former military sites, however, "was not flowing toward AVX and not toward Horry Land's property, so based on that I don't see how there could be a connection between any of the sites on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base and AVX or Horry Land," O'Connell said.

Federal regulators say TCE 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.