After years of operating quietly in a small Pee Dee community, an industrial plant that employs hundreds of people is being accused by neighbors of polluting their land and making them sick.
One of those neighbors, Janet Tillman of Cheraw, filed a lawsuit last week against Highland Industries for what she says is a failure to stop pollution that dates as far back as 1970. The suit, which says the Cheraw plant released cancer-causing PCBs, seeks compensation for Tillman and class action status, meaning hundreds of neighbors also could be compensated if the suit is successful.
Duke Energy also was mentioned in the lawsuit and likely will be listed as a defendant at a later date, a spokeswoman for the Harrell law firm of Charleston said Friday. In the past, Duke washed equipment coated with PCBs in a field across the street from the Highland plant, said the firm’s Shelia Arroyo.
A Duke spokesman said the company didn’t know why it was mentioned in the suit, and Highland had no immediate comment Friday. The lawsuit is the second filed in court in Chesterfield County against Highland since Hurricane Florence focused attention last September on industrial pollution from the site. A creek basin below the plant has been declared a federal Superfund cleanup site because of historic contamination from the Highland property.
When the hurricane blew through, it washed toxins from the Superfund area into four houses and five other yards, sparking emergency cleanup work and focusing attention on Highland.
“In September of 2018, a serious storm caused severe flooding and further movement of the contaminants from the defendant’s site onto and into the properties of (Highland’s) neighbors,’’ the suit says, noting that the manufacturing plant released the pollution through “neglect and failures.’’
But the suit isn’t just about Hurricane Florence’s aftermath. It says the plant had been polluting the area for parts of 49 years.
The state lawsuit says Highland Industries knew or should have known that the site was “seriously contaminated’’ and toxins were leaving its property when it purchased the site in 1988 from Burlington Industries. But Highland never did anything to stop the poisonous mess that today is lowering property values and affecting people’s health, the suit says.
“The migration of hazardous and toxic constituents .... is continuing, causing loss of property value, property damage and .... painful severe injuries and illnesses,’’ the suit said.
The State reported on the legacy of pollution problems after Hurricane Florence zapped the area last fall. Among other things, the newspaper found that state regulators had known as far back as 1970 about the discharge of a greenish waste into a ditch from the industrial plant. But many people didn’t learn about the pollution until the state Department of Health and Environmental Control began investigating about four years ago. The EPA later declared a 3.2 mile area below the Highland plant, including a former city park, as a Superfund site.
Highland has denied liability but has done some cleanup work since the hurricane. Some of Cheraw’s leaders have spoken favorably of Highland, which they say has been a good neighbor through the years. The textile manufacturing plant, which opened in 1961, employs several hundred people. It has made a variety of fabrics through the years, including Kevlar for bulletproof vests.
Cheraw, a town of about 6,000, is near the North Carolina border in South Carolina’s Pee Dee region, a mostly rural area east of Columbia. The EPA says it has cleaned up the worst of the contamination, but has a long-term plan to clean up other parts of the area that it says were not as badly contaminated.
Tillman, a neighbor of the factory, says she and her family are examples of how pollution affected their property and their health. PCBs, products once used widely by industry, can cause liver cancer and skin irritation to people exposed to large amounts of the material over time. PCBs once were used as coolants and lubricants in transformers and other electrical equipment, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Tillman’s sons say they played as children in the drainage ditch that flowed from the Highland site. One of them, Domonic Tillman of Texas, said he suspects an acne-like rash that plagues him today is related to pollution that washed down the creek. Another son, Jerod Harris of Columbia, said he also is having health problems that are not common to his family.
“There’s no telling what’s down the line with our health,’’ said Janet Tillman, who said she’s lived below the plant for 29 years and only learned of the pollution about three years ago. “Who can tell later on?’’
In her lawsuit, Tillman asks a court to not only grant class action status, but to force further cleanup of the area by Highland Industries of “all contaminants from its plant site, the affected drainage ditch/creek and from (Tillman’s) property.’’ If the company doesn’t do that, the court should order it to be shut down, the suit says.
One neighbor who lives across the ditch from Tillman said he plans to join the lawsuit.
Melvin Wilkerson, whose home also is next to an old sludge disposal area the plant used, said he has suffered thyroid cancer and skin rashes that he suspects are tied to the industrial pollution. He wants the vacant sludge disposal site cleaned up.
“The lot next to us on our right side, facing our front door, has not been cleaned up,’’ said Wilkerson, a retired school teacher. “If there is no resident or occupant on the land, it is not cleaned up.’’