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‘Tough pill to swallow’: Lawsuit says Water Valley residents may have been poisoned for more than 50 years

Water Valley residents have allegedly been exposed to carcinogenic chemicals for nearly half a century

A lawsuit filed Wednesday afternoon in the United States District Court alleges that for more than 50 years, the people of Water Valley were poisoned by trichlorethylene, or TCE, being dumped into their water supply and surrounding environment.

The illegal dumping is said to have caused a “cancer cluster,” with a higher rate of cancer than in surrounding areas. An auto parts company known as the Holley Automotive Division of Col Industries, later renamed Coltec, was owned by EnPro Industries and began illegally discarding TCE beginning in 1972.

“This greedy company cheated to cut costs at the expense of human health and risking countless lives,” said Nick Rowley, trial attorney and co-founder of Trial Lawyers for Justice. “The scope and scale of harms and losses caused by this wrongdoing is devastating.”

According to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, TCE is known to damage a wide variety of organs in the body, including the respiratory and central nervous systems. The chemical is also linked to health issues, such as cancer, that can surface decades after initial exposure to the toxin.

The knowledge of its toxicity in Mississippi dates back to the 1950s when the chemical was used in cattle feed, resulting in the cows developing hemorrhagic diseases and disorders that caused them to bleed out and die shocking deaths. Over 750 Water Valley residents are said to have experienced health issues due to chemical poisoning, per Jakob Norman, one of the attorneys working on the case alongside Rowley. That number is expected to change as the investigations continue.

“When you talk to these people, they just thought they were getting sick because of age or life,” Norman said. “When they figure out that their cancer or illness are connected to something that was preventable, it starts to become a harder pill to swallow.”

Excell Vance, 69, is one of the hundreds that were allegedly affected by exposure to TCE.

“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 said. “The harm that they caused to my life, my family, and this community is unspeakable.”

According to the lawsuit filed against EnPro Industries, multiple victims who worked at the auto parts company now suffer from cancer and other complications stemming directly from the prolonged exposure to poisoned air, water, and soil within Water Valley communities. TCE was used as “a solvent at the facility to clean these automotive parts of the debris and other contaminants that had accumulated on the automative parts during the fabrication process.”

“Several hundred victims have come forward with cancers and other conditions caused by exposure to TCE,” Drew Tominello, attorney for the victims, said. “This lawsuit is the first of many that we expect to file for the scores of individuals and families that have been harmed.”

Based on information known to victims’ counsel, Coltec told employees to clean the TCE degreaser equipment by hand where they came into direct contact with highly concentrated waste TCE without informing the employees or requiring them to wear protective equipment. Coltec would also allow the waste TCE tank to become full, resulting in overflow.

And on multiple occasions, the TCE waste would be dumped into a ditch near the facility. On one occasion, an employee discovered around 20 dead turtles in the ditch, which was reported to the manager and other co-workers. But despite the concerns raised, Coltec is said to have continued disposing of the chemical in ways that would cut costs.

Methods for cheaply getting rid of the waste included spraying it in a gravel lot for “weed control” and encouraging employees to take home as much of it as they could to kill weeds at their homes. Because TCE is a dense chemical heavier than water, and if discharged into the environment tends to sink into the ground, contaminating the surrounding water table. The toxic liquid can remain volatile in the soil for decades after initial contamination.

According to Coltec records presented in the lawsuit, the auto parts company purchased at least 80,000 gallons of TCE, but only disposed of around 5,775 gallons responsibly.

During the span that Coltec is said to have been illegally disposing of the chemical, the company was put on notice by the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality because of allegations at the time. But paperwork submitted by Coltec said that changes weren’t necessary because the equipment wasn’t “operational” at the time.

“When you look at all these cases, usually doing the right thing wasn’t that hard,” Norman said. “No one was asking them to jump through too many hurdles on how to dispose of this.”

Norman went on to say that the first step is making sure that exposure is not continuing, referencing the fact that TCE contamination can remain in the environment for decades on end. Over the coming months, legal counsel will continue the discovery process to total how many victims were affected before other action is taken.

Depending on how many victims come forward, the case could become a class action lawsuit. EnPro Industries could not be reached for comment at the time this story was published.

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