WEST PALM BEACH (CN) - Industrial runoff from a Pratt & Whitney plant contaminated drinking water with carcinogenic waste, residents of a rural community say in a federal class action. Eight cases of pediatric brain cancer were diagnosed in the community between 2005 and 2008, revealing an occurrence rate more than six times the state average, according to Palm Beach County's Department of Health statistics.
Residents of the area known as the Acreage say runoff from the airplane parts manufacturer's now-defunct production site made its way into their drinking water. Property sales in the Acreage have plummeted since the Department of Health launched an investigation into the heightened cancer rates last year, and the lead plaintiffs say the contamination has devalued their homes.
"Pratt and Whitney's operations at the subject property ... produced acidic and alkaline rinse wastewater and hazardous wastes. [Its] waste generated at the property [has] in some instances been collected in percolation ponds ... and incinerated sites," the complaint states.
"The waste includes oil, sodium cyanide, thorium-dispersed nickel, construction debris, unknown solid waste, solvents, solvent sludges, asbestos, fuels, paints, pesticide and herbicide residue, benzonitrite, mercury, and commercial and laboratory chemicals."
The complaint does not cite any local test results for drinking water wells.
The Department of Health's only available assessment of the Pratt and Whitney site at issue dates back to 1988, when the plant was still fully operational.
Widespread contamination was noted in the site report: the surface water concentration of chlorinated hydrocarbons (industrial solvents and degreasers) was more than 3 grams per liter, with levels of dichloroethane exceeding 6 grams per liter in some samples.
According to the EPA, the plant had been dumping industrial solvents into nearby "sanitary landfills" since it opened in 1958. The EPA adds in a site narrative that during the plant's early years, a 2,000-gallon trichloroethane leak from an underground storage tank polluted soil at an isolated location at the plant.
Studies have shown that chlorinated solvents have relatively low absorption in soil, and that under the right conditions, they can persist for years in groundwater.
Polychlorinated biphenyls, which the class attorney, Craig Zobel, also cites as a possible contaminant, were found at a maximum concentration of 4 grams per liter of groundwater at the Pratt and Whitney plant, according to the Department of Health site report.
PCBs were used in jet fuel heaters at Pratt and Whitney's engine test sites, Zobel's complaint states.
In the late '80s, the plant installed a remedial aeration system in its wells and began pumping out polluted groundwater. Three acres of land laden with industrial waste was capped and vented, according to the EPA's site narrative. Confident the contamination was under control, the state removed the site from its list of priority cleanups.
The Department of Health's 1988 report found that the plant's own drinking water was safe because Pratt and Whitney constantly screened the onsite wells. However, "the presence and use of potable wells off-site ... [had] not been addressed," according to the report.
Pratt and Whitney and the Department of Environmental Protection have insisted that the contamination is contained, and that years of remediation efforts have been productive. The DEP claims that the mostly abandoned 7,000-acre plant, about 6 miles away from the center of the cluster, poses no discernible risk.
According to the Department of Environmental Protection, it's unlikely that the contaminated water has migrated into the residential wells.
Further complicating the case, the industrial solvents and degreasers cited in the lawsuit, and those that were most prominent in the Health Department's old report on the Pratt and Whitney site, are not definitively known to produce primary brain cancers.
According to government studies archived in the Hazardous Substances Database, chlorinated solvents are hepatotoxins, which at high levels of exposure (more than 100 mg/kg/day for dichloroethane), destroyed the livers of lab rats.
Though some studies suggest the solvents cause liver and kidney cancer, none note the presence of tumorigenesis in mammalian brains. Studies of occupational exposure have established limited correlative links between chlorinated solvents and brain cancer.
The Health Department's review of the cancer cluster shows that there is a high prevalence of aggressive pediatric brain tumors in the Acreage, but that rates of other tumors are not as markedly elevated.
In the community's adult population, the overall cancer rate is about 30 percent higher than the state's. Whereas 1,055 total cancer cases were to be expected in the Acreage from 1995 to 2007, based on the Health Department's statewide prevalence rates, 1,369 were recorded.
Department of Health statements have previously suggested that the Acreage's population data was skewed in early calculations, and that as a result, the possibility remained that the brain cancer cluster was simply a statistical outlier.
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helped re-examine the cluster and sent a letter to the Department of Health stating, "The main conclusion is that, even with the denominator population ranging from 29,036 to 39,809 depending on the method, [the rate] for female pediatric residents for brain cancer remains statistically, significantly elevated."
Recent toxic tort cases against Pratt and Whitney have faltered. In February 2006, a Connecticut Supreme Court judge dismissed the claims of more than 50 families of Pratt and Whitney employees who had suffered from aggressive brain tumors allegedly caused by industrial solvent exposure. The suit was time-barred, the judge wrote, because it was filed more than 2 years after many of the cancer victims had died.
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