Rene Stutzman, Orlando Sentinel, September 23, 2006
Lake Mary, Seminole County, Florida
SANFORD — The former owner of a telephone-equipment plant that sits idle atop a plume of chemical-laced groundwater is suing some of the country’s biggest chemical manufacturers, blaming them for the pollution.
MONI Holdings LLC alleges the companies that sold the solvents — not the ones that bought and used them — are responsible for the pollution.
It says solvent manufacturers told customers to discard the chemical — trichloroethene, or TCE — by spreading it on the ground and allowing it to evaporate, according to the suit.
The results, according to the suit, were disastrous. Not only is the water beneath the plant now contaminated, dozens of former workers say they contracted cancer and other serious illnesses because of it.
The suit, filed Thursday in state Circuit Court, names Dow Chemical Company and 18 other manufacturers.
The groundwater beneath the old Siemens-Stromberg parcel at 400 Rinehart Road in Lake Mary has long been the subject of pollution claims, cleanup orders and lawsuits.
This is the first time a company that operated the plant — there were at least five — has conceded that the TCE used there was the source of the contamination and blamed someone other than another operator.
The plant was built in 1968 by General Dynamics, which began manufacturing telephone switches there under the name Stromberg.
MONI is a Delaware holding company, formerly known as Marconi Holdings LLC, that owned and operated the plant from the mid-1980s into the ’90s. The facility was then sold to Siemens AG, which operated it until its closure in 2003.
The groundwater contamination was discovered in 2001 when Lake Mary, looking for a new source of municipal drinking water, drilled a 560-foot-deep well on Siemens’ land, near its plant.
The water it produced tested positive for TCE, a common industrial solvent that former plant employees say they used for years to degrease the telephone switches they made. The Florida Department of Environmental Protection concluded the plant used TCE until 1986.
The city now uses water from that well, but MONI paid $2.1 million for scrubbers to make it safe, according to court records.
That is money Dow and the other chemical manufacturers should have to repay, according to the suit. They also should have to pay for cleaning up the toxins still in the groundwater and for any fallout from the workers’ lawsuits, according to the suit.
Dow knew about the potential pollution dangers from TCE as far back as 1965 but kept them secret, according to the suit.
The suit also accuses Dow and the other chemical manufacturers of failing to properly test their solvents and warn customers about the potential harm to groundwater.
“MONI is wholly without fault for the contamination of the groundwater with TCE…,” according to the suit.
Dow spokeswoman Jeannine Sohayda would not comment Friday, saying the company had not seen a copy of the suit.
But Paul Byron, an Orlando attorney who represents three dozen former plant workers who say the contaminated water made them sick, said he was thrilled with the MONI suit.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Byron said. “Everyone is now in agreement that TCE is in the ground, and it’s at dangerous levels. . . . It’s always helpful when the other side says, ‘Yes, you’re right.’ ”
The former plant employees have had little success in court. In May, a federal judge in Orlando rejected their key argument — that the property’s current owners, two land companies that never operated the plant, should have to pay for making them sick.
Workers have since begun a new round of suits in state Circuit Court in Sanford demanding that the plant’s former operators — including MONI — pay damages.
Rene Stutzman can be reached at email@example.com or 407-324-7294.