Something in the Water
For 14 years, Diamont Boart illegally dumped industrial waste out the plant's back door, right into the Royal Pines neighborhood. Now residents there want to know why 33 of their wells are contaminated, and why so many of their family members are dying.BY ALEX TODOROVIC
George Shaw was the first Royal Pines resident to raise questions about the neighborhood's water in the late 1980s. Shaw complained of rashes and viruses, said he could no longer use his swimming pool, and took showers as quickly as possible.
Shaw's complaints started people talking, and he eventually gained the status of community spokesperson in the Royal Pines subdivision, a community of about 300 residences, mostly mobile homes, located off U.S. 1 near Spring Valley High School in Columbia.
Mosell Nunery, a resident retired from the State Printing Company, started buying her drinking water by the gallon from Winn Dixie.
"I knew there was something wrong with my water because it smelled and it turned the sink and bathtub green," she said. "When I bathed in it, I broke out in a rash. I bet I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars at a Columbia skin clinic trying to find out what caused it and they never could pinpoint it."
William Hall, 37, moved to Royal Pines in 1989, and it changed his life. "I started getting skin rashes after I moved in and then I started spitting up blood," he said. "I went to two or three doctors and they couldn't figure out what was wrong with me. My stomach was sick all the time."
Neighborhood resident Pauline Driver remembered: "My skin broke out and itched. My daughter-in-law who lives next door, she'd take a bath and itch so bad she couldn't stand it."
Joyce Martin's two young, healthy dogs, one a Rotweiler and the other a Doberman, died inexplicably about a year apart. "They just got sick real suddenly," she said. "I took them to Clemson Experimental Station. Their intestines just exploded. The guy at the experimental station said he had never seen anything like it."
Shaw and others called the Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) to complain and to inquire about the activities of local industries that could contaminate the groundwater.
In the fall of 1990, DHEC began a two-year process of water testing, which led to the discovery of an elongated plume of contamination, primarily along two streets in Royal Pines Fore Ave. and Wynette Way.
The final results of the investigation: 33 wells had detectable levels of either tetrachloroethylene (PCE) or trichloroethylene (TCE), both considered probable carcinogens. Thirteen wells had levels of those chemicals that exceeded the maximum level established by the Environmental Protection Agency.
Other goodies found in the water included a wicked brew of dichlorobenzene, methylene chloride, trichloro-fluoromethane, dichloroethene, dichloro-fluoromethane and chloroform, some of which are suspected carcinogens.
Residents of the area began receiving letters from DHEC informing them of the levels of contamination found in their wells and advising some that "this department recommends that you not use your well water for drinking or cooking."
DHEC also promised to look into the matter. "This investigation will include an effort to determine the responsible party or parties."
Five years later, DHEC has yet to solve this puzzle.
For some people in the neighborhood, the contamination wasn't a big mystery. Diamant Boart America Inc., located only 360 feet from a Royal Pines home, was the closest manufacturing plant in the area.
Shaw had snooped around Diamant Boart's property in the '80s and had seen things that didn't look right. He took his neighbor and friend, Harry Martin, to show him the barrels of waste sitting out back.
Then Shaw and Martin learned from a Diamant Boart employee that dozens of barrels of hazardous waste were buried on the property and that other waste had been dumped on the property of a Diamant Boart employee in Elgin. They called DHEC with this information more than once, but couldn't get the state agency to act. In fact, the hazardous waste drums buried behind Diamant Boart would not be unearthed for years.
"Then people started dying," recalled Joyce Martin. "We just noticed all of a sudden that there were a lot more deaths and illnesses in this small community than was the norm."
The Koon family lost a member in 1990 to stomach cancer, as did the McElveen household. Lee King died of a brain tumor. And the Nunery's household lost two family members.
"My brother passed on in 1991," Nunery said. "He died of cancer. It went all through him. Then in 1992, my husband accidentally shot himself. He had chronic diarrhea for three years. They never could find out what had caused it. He had been to every stomach specialist that we could think of."
The Martins, Shaw, Hall and others started campaigning to bring city water into the neighborhood, but this was a difficult task for a community with sparse resources.
As the only household in Royal Pines with city water, the Martins were fortunate. They lived closest to U.S. 1, and Harry Martin had run pipes to tap into the city water main in 1978. Four years later, he had a well built for his wife as a birthday present. They preferred the well water, and stopped using city water altogether until DHEC's advisory letters arrived.
After the contamination was discovered, the Martin's city water was the only source of safe drinking water in the area. The Martins had two hoses in their front yard for people to fill their jugs. Eventually, the county installed a water spigot on the adjacent lot.
In the spring of 1992, things took a tragic turn in the Martin household. Harry Martin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A short time later, their neighbor from across the street, Smiley Burnette, was diagnosed with the same disease.
"Smiley came over and visited my husband and saw my husband's tubes and he knew that he had the same thing," Joyce Martin said. "They were going to put tubes in him and he didn't want that."
Burnette killed himself before his illness progressed to Martin's level of suffering. Harry Martin died in December 1992, several weeks after Burnette's suicide.
Before he died, Martin filed a civil suit against Diamant Boart America. "Harry knew they had killed him just as sure as if they had walked in the back door and shot him," his wife said. "They're owned by a company in Belgium. That is a clean country over there. You go over there and throw anything on the ground, you're in trouble. So they come over here and mess up ours. Harry made me promise, Honey, whatever you do, you follow through with this lawsuit'."
Joyce Martin's civil suit against Diamant Boart America Inc. concluded last month, with a jury finding Diamant Boart guilty of trespass.
The jury awarded Joyce Martin $35,000 in property damages and $1 million in punitive damages, although it could not determine that Harry Martin's cancer was a direct result of the chemicals found in his well.
It is difficult to prove a direct causal relationship in these cases because of the difficulty in answering basic questions: how much will a person's risk of cancer increase from exposure to a certain amount of a chemical that is classified as a probable carcinogen, and how long must this exposure occur? Scientists themselves don't have definitive answers to these questions, although all agree that ingesting carcinogens on a regular basis increases the risk of cancer.
What is clear, however, is that Diamant Boart lied through its teeth. During the trial, Diamant Boart officials denied ever using TCE, one of the chemicals found in Royal Pines, except in spray cans.
But attorneys for the plaintiffs Fedor, Massey, Whitlark and Ballou presented witness Frederick W. Nash who, as a sales representative from Ashland Chemical, sold the company 15,000 pounds of TCE in 1978 alone and had the sales records to prove it.
And a Diamant Boart employee admitted lying on a DHEC document stating that the company did not generate hazardous waste. So went much of the trial.
The main point of contention during the trial was the direction the groundwater flowed and the possibility of water "mounding." Everyone agreed that the groundwater flowed in a south to southeasterly direction, while the Royal Pines subdivision was directly to the east. Diamant Boart argued that it could not have possibly contaminated the well water in Royal Pines because it wasn't directly in the path of the groundwater flow.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs presented a hydrogeologist who explained the scientifically accepted phenomenon of "mounding," when large quantities of water are dumped in an area that changes the direction of groundwater flow.
Diamant Boart's million-dollar expert hydrogeologist witness agreed that this was possible, as did Judy Canova, a DHEC hydrogeologist. The assertion could not be conclusively proven, however, because Diamant Boart stopped dumping massive amounts of water in 1989, and water flow tests were conducted years later, after any potential mounding had disappeared.
The testimony of current and former Diamant Boart employees, along with the company's own environmental records, or lack thereof, paints a picture of a company that came to South Carolina's "business-friendly environment" to hold a pollution orgy. Diamant Boart saved more than $50 million in hazardous disposal fees by dancing figure eights over environmental laws.
More disturbing still was DHEC's comatose response towards an egregious violator of the law. From the day Diamant Boart opened its doors in 1976 as Wheel Trueing, the company left a trail of illness and deceit.
Diamant Boart, owned by a Belgian company, relocated its Cincinnati plant in 1976 to Two Notch Road. The company manufactured industrial diamond-edged mining equipment, employing about 240 people.
In March of 1976 the company submitted to DHEC a preliminary engineering report, referred to as the Gilbert Report, which proposed three alternate methods for disposal of industrial waste water. DHEC approved two of those methods.
The plant looked good on paper. It would use a double filtration system on contaminated contact cooling water which would then be reused in cooling systems.
The company submitted another engineering report in 1977 that described a closed system for treating process effluent. Hazardous water generated from the nickel plating process and metallurgical laboratory was to be stored in a 5,000-gallon tank and reused in diamond reclaiming operations.
The two engineering reports, unfortunately, bore no semblance to reality. The company had no filtration system and simply dumped everything on the ground. The company was required by law to have a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permit (NPDES) to dump water that would eventually enter the water table.
Former employees described the wanton disregard for health and environmental regulations. By the company's own admission, 12,400 gallons a day of unfiltered contact cooling water were discharged through a drain at the bottom of a hill behind the plant, creating what employees referred to as the "cesspool" or the "shithole."
Phyllis Ross, who worked at the plant from 1976 until 1984, remembered, "It was like a swamp down in there. Nothing grew. It was dead."
Sylvester Coaxum, 44, worked at the plant from its opening until 1983 as an electro-plater in the take-out department. Coaxum's department was the location of temporary 60-gallon disposal vats where people came from different departments to dump their waste. The vats ran into a 500 gallon sump, a cement hole in the ground, which then fed a 5,000-gallon tank, referred to as Tank A.
In reality, Tank A could not handle the volume of waste that was generated, and overflowed on a regular basis, sending streams of waste flowing down a grassy hill out back.
Coaxum was instructed to drain the entire 5,000-gallon tank containing acids, solvents, and degreasers directly behind the plant where it would flow into the ground.
"On three occasions, I was the waste truck'," he said. "On other occasions I would come to work Monday morning and the waste truck' had come and gone."
The hazardous material from Tank A should have been hauled off by a waste disposal company, yet John Howard Allen, who was appointed environmental manager at the plant in the mid-'80s, admitted that the company had absolutely no records of hazardous waste disposal before the end of 1986.
He also said that Diamant Boart did not have a required NPDES permit to dump water because, "We didn't know we needed one." He acknowledged that the company's files on environmental matters consisted of few pages.
Sandra Belton, who worked in take-out with Coaxum, said that she and others frequently tossed buckets of waste directly outside the door.
Coaxum explained, "It was convenient to dump stuff out the back door. None of us were chemists, none of us knew any better." Coaxum disposed of rotting drums of waste by rolling them down the hill behind the plant where they were left to disintegrate.
At one point during the Martin trial, a Diamant Boart attorney argued that the water in the sump may have been rain water. Coaxum responded, "Cats and dogs don't die from rain water."
He later explained, "I found the carcasses of cats, dogs and birds in and around my sump. It was a standing joke at the plant, You find anything dead this morning?'"
When the sump contained too much sludge, Coaxum was sent in to dredge it up. "They put a rope around me and dressed me in a monkey suit. That's when I said, Sylvester, enough is enough.' There's only so much I'll do for a pay check." How much pay ? "I started there at $5 an hour and when I left I was making $6 something," Coaxum said.
The plant showed a total disregard for employee safety. A former manager who spoke on condition of anonymity said, "They were slack about enforcing health and safety regulations for employees. People would not wash their hands, nor wear gloves or glasses. There was no effort to educate employees because it was not yet required by OSHA.
"When someone raised a concern, it was difficult to get a message across. In retrospect, I think I should have been more vehement. Trying to do the right thing can be difficult."
The company took advantage of employees' ignorance of hazardous material. "I had no experience in working with any chemicals. I was totally ignorant," Coaxum said.
"When I mixed nitric acid and calcium nitrate and put a piece of metal in there, beautiful orange clouds would rise out of the vats. There were times you could barely see me through the orange fumes. On days with a low cloud cover when we had a lot of work, you could see orange halos around the parking lot."
Coaxum did not first realize that his job was hazardous to his health, but over time he realized what was happening.
"I was told by my immediate supervisor to get out while I still had a chance," Coaxum said. "He told me that it wasn't worth it, that I had been exposed long enough to the contamination, cut my losses and leave. I hit the clock and left."
He was 33 years old when he quit, became sterile and went through a period of impotency. "When I left there, I didn't go complaining to anyone, or seeking restitution," he said. "I just took it like it was part of the job and I was the loser. I can't undo what's been done. I've accepted the fact that my health is ruined, but I don't go around laboring the issue. I take it day by day."
City water records show that between 1976 and 1989 Diamant Boart used, on average, 8.5 million gallons of water a year. The plant was not connected to a sewer system, and had no permit aside from an approved septic tank.
Twenty years later, after groundwater has been polluted and nearby wells condemned, residents of adjacent communities are left wondering how such a thing could happen.
The answers, or lack thereof, can be found in those four familiar letters that have come to represent regulatory meltdown: DHEC.
For the first few years that Diamant Boart was in operation, there is no evidence that DHEC bothered to visit the site.
On March 17, 1982, a DHEC official met with the company to discuss cooling water discharges from the plant. The following day DHEC sent a letter asking for an analysis to be taken of contact cooling water, along with estimates of discharges, and that this information "should be included in your NPDES permit application."
Diamant Boart ignored this correspondence and DHEC, inexplicably, dropped the matter.
In February 1983, Bryce Haywood, a senior manufacturing engineer with Diamant Boart, signed a legally binding DHEC document stating that the company did not handle hazardous waste in 1981 or 1982.
After 1980, when the federal Resources Conservation and Recovery Act was implemented, any company generating hazardous waste had to inform DHEC.
On the witness stand at the Martin trial, Haywood admitted that the document was an outright lie. As a matter of fact, 1982 was the year 54 drums of hazardous waste were secretly buried in Diamant Boart's backyard. Nobody will ever know what, exactly, was in those drums because the contents leeched into the ground. In 1994, when the drums were unearthed, 27 of them were found to contain cadmium, which affects brain development.
In April 1986, a DHEC air quality control official, Larry Boland, investigated a complaint of a yellow noxious cloud at the plant. Boland noted that Diamant Boart had no permits to discharge water and sent a letter, dated April 15, 1986. As in the previous DHEC letter of 1982, Boland's letter asked for specific information regarding the amount and content of water discharges at the plant.
This second DHEC letter contained understatements like, "It was determined that the previous engineering report does not address exactly what is taking place at the facility."
Diamant Boart responded to this second letter by providing an analysis of Tank A, but said nothing about water discharges.
DHEC did what any serious regulatory agency would do; it sent another letter. This third letter, dated Sept. 2, 1986, asked for the same information. The company never responded.
Boland handed the matter over to enforcement where it lay dormant for a few more years.
In 1987, Diamant Boart hired an environmental consulting firm, G&E Engineering, to address environmental problems at the plant and to solicit suggestions as to how they might be remedied.
The report the firm issued found numerous sources of "potentially significant soil and groundwater contamination" and strongly recommended that the plant "go to a zero discharge system." In other words, stop dumping waste water into the environment immediately.
The report also recommended a training program for employees, and noted "solvents are within a few feet of heat sources waste containers are not labeled there is no program for the management of waste."
The gist of the report was that the company was doing nearly nothing in accordance with environmental law.
DHEC's somnambulent attitude toward Diamant Boart went on until late 1989. The company finally submitted an application for an NPDES permit in May, 14 years after opening about the same time Royal Pines residents were getting sick.
DHEC issued a Rule to Show Cause in September 1989, and the company was reigned in. City water records show that the company's water usage plummeted at the end of 1989.
In January 1990, DHEC fined Diamant Boart $4,000 (four thousand dollars and zero cents) for operating without a permit for 14 years.
When DHEC finally issued Diamant Boart's NPDES permit, it granted the company permission to discharge a limited amount of wastewater "to receiving waters named unnamed tributary to Spears Creek.' " This so called "unnamed tributary" was created by Diamant Boart's dumping of massive amounts of water for 14 years. The "tributary" to Spear
"Harry knew they had killed him just as sure as if they had walked in the back door and shot him. Harry made me promise, 'Honey, whatever you do, you follow through with this lawsuit.'"
"I found the carcasses of cats, dogs and birds in and around my sump. It was a standing joke at the plant, 'You find anything dead this morning?'"
Sylvster Coaxum, former Diamont Boart worker