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Ex-employees sue Water Valley facility over TCE pollution

A group of north Mississippians have filed a negligence lawsuit in federal court claiming that pollution their former employer released into the air, groundwater and soil near the Water Valley facility where they worked inflicted them with long-term symptoms such as cancer and Parkinson’s disease.

Plaintiffs Odester Andrews, Excell Vance, Josephine Martin, Eddie Foster, Billy Harris, Joan Berryhill, Patricia Camp, and Clayfers Walton all used to work at the carburetor manufacturer, now owned by North Carolina company EnPro Industries, Inc.

“It’s well known that this is a dangerous chemical, and yet we were exposed to
dangerous levels, and they polluted the land and drinking water with it,” Vance, 69, said. “The harm that they caused to my life, my family, and this community is unspeakable.”

The lawsuit filed Tuesday says the business, at the time owned by Coltec Industries, used a “vapor degreaser” it bought from another company, Detrex Corp., to clean debris and oil from car parts. The degreaser contained a toxic chemical called trichloroethylene, or TCE, the complaint says, a substance the Environmental Protection Agency is now working to ban.

A map of the Coltec facility included in Tuesday’s lawsuit, showing the plume of TCE around the facility.
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A map of the Coltec facility included in Tuesday’s lawsuit, showing the plume of TCE around the facility.

TCE has been around for decades, and is mostly used in degreasers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but is also an ingredient in “adhesives, paint removers, typewriter correction fluids, and spot removers.” TCE is a known carcinogen, the CDC says, and the National Cancer Institute specifically links prolonged exposure to TCE with kidney cancer.

The complaint lists EnPro, Detrex, and Italmatch Chemicals — an Italian company that bought Detrex in 2017 — as defendants. Mississippi Today reached out to EnPro for comment but did not hear back.

Coltec used the degreaser containing TCE from 1972 to 1986, according to state enforcement records. All except one of the eight plaintiffs worked at the facility during that time. The other plaintiff, Andrews, was exposed to TCE either through drinking water or from breathing vapors at the facility, the lawsuit claims. Seven of the plaintiffs have some form of cancer, and other diagnoses among the group include Parkinson’s disease and kidney disease.

Coltec, the lawsuit claims, did not have a plan for disposing its TCE waste. The complaint details an incident where Coltec told an employee to dump TCE waste in a ditch behind the facility and, the next day, an employee told their supervisor that they saw about 20 dead turtles in the same ditch. The lawsuit also claims the company told employees to spray TCE in the parking lot to kill weeds.

In 1988, Coltec and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality sampled two water wells, one the company used and the other a “domestic” well near the facility, MDEQ records show. The samples revealed TCE levels above 5 parts per billion, or ppb, the limit set by the Environmental Protection Agency. Two years later, MDEQ ordered the company to investigate the extent of and then remediate its pollution of TCE into the nearby groundwater.

But for years the harmful chemical remained present in the nearby air and groundwater. Testing from 2017 at monitoring wells near the facility shows TCE levels as high as 13,200 ppb in the groundwater, shattering the EPA limit. Around the same time, TCE levels in the air inside the facility also surpassed the EPA action level, the Clarion Ledger reported.

Also in 2017, then-Attorney General Jim Hood filed a lawsuit against the company seeking repayment of cleanup costs incurred by the state. The two sides reached a settlement in 2020.

Last October, the EPA proposed banning the use of TCE in manufacturing. The agency said it’s suggesting an exemption to the ban for “battery separators” because they’re critical to the economy and don’t yet have a substitute for TCE.

Data from National Cancer Institute, which was cited in the lawsuit, show that Yalobusha County, where Water Valley is, has seen the biggest rise in cancer diagnoses over the last five years of any county in the state.

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