Cheraw residents whose property flooded during Hurricane Florence are suing one of the town’s major industries, arguing that its failure to clean up a toxic mess allowed industrial poisons to wash onto their land and into a home as the storm roared through.
In the first of what is expected to be several lawsuits sparked by the September flood, George and Catherine Martin of Cheraw say they want to be paid for the damage that Highland Industries caused to their land.
Cancer-causing PCBs from the Highland site drained onto their property during Hurricane Florence and into their home, the Martins say in their lawsuit. The flood-related pollution added to contamination that already had dripped from the industrial site onto their land for years, the Martins say.
“I don’t feel like my property is worth anything,’’ said George Martin, a retired car dealer who said his home once was valued at more than $400,000. “PCBs have killed my property’s value.’’
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Highland officials were not available for comment on the suit, filed Thursday in Chesterfield County.
Cheraw, a sleepy town of about 6,000 in eastern South Carolina, suffered major flooding when Hurricane Florence moved through the area in September. Streets filled with water, the town’s water system failed and some residents lost power as rain-swollen rivers and creeks spilled over their banks. About 2 feet of rain fell in the Cheraw area during the storm.
The Martins’ suit, which does not say how much they want in damages, is tied to the cleanup of an area in Cheraw that was designated as a federal Superfund site earlier this year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was working on the site’s cleanup when Hurricane Florence slammed the Carolinas, swamping the area and sending remaining pollution onto adjacent land.
After the storm, EPA crews scrambled to clean five homes along a polluted creek, saying the houses were too dangerous to live in because of contamination from the flood. The Martins’ house was not among those cleaned up.
Records reviewed by The State show the pollution originated on the Highland Industries site before that company acquired the land from Burlington Industries, a fabric manufacturer, in 1988. Many residents did not learn about the contamination that had drained off the industrial site into creeks and yards downstream until 2016.
The Martins’ suit says Highland should have cleaned up the pollution long ago.
Highland either knew, or should have known, when it purchased the Cheraw plant in 1988 that Burlington had tainted the land, the suit says. Not until 2016, when state and federal agencies started investigating, did Highland start to address the contamination that had been draining into a ditch and creek, the suit says.
Highland “allowed and failed to take appropriate actions to prevent the movement of the contaminants from its property into the drainage ditch/creek and onto the residential properties of its neighbors,’’ the suit says. The suit does not name Burlington, which filed bankruptcy in the early 2000s, as a defendant.
The suit said pollution from the industrial plant had contaminated the Martins’ property before the hurricane, but the hurricane pushed more toxins down the creek into their home.
Gary Poliakoff, a Spartanburg lawyer representing the Martins, said Highland’s failure to clean up the pollution has hurt property values and threatened residents’ health.
For years, children played in the creek running below the Highland plant and into a city park. The park now is part of the federal Superfund site and has been closed.
“Knowing children played in the creek should be of heightened concern for the neighborhood,’’ Poliakoff said. “The children could get significant exposure.’’
Highland Industries, headquartered in Kernersville, N.C., is one of Cheraw’s major employers.
Five years ago, it drew praise from state industrial recruiters for its $4.1 million Cheraw expansion. Earlier this year, the S.C. Manufacturers’ Alliance honored Highland for its environmental stewardship, philanthropy and worker safety. The plant, which produces industrial fabrics, has several hundred employees.
Supporters say the company has been a good community neighbor, giving generously through the years to charitable causes. The company also recently helped with cleanup efforts from past pollution.
“Anytime we need money for a special event, for our athletic programs or arts commission, they’’ contribute, Mayor Andy Ingram told The State in September. “They are good to their employees. They pay good wages.”