Lawsuit: Northrop Grumman knew chemical contaminated homes in Springfield area

Published: Sep. 29, 2021 at 5:00 PM CDT|Updated: Sep. 29, 2021 at 5:52 PM CDT
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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) — Defense company Northrop Grumman knew for more than a decade that chemicals from a site it owns near the Springfield-Branson Airport were contaminating groundwater in surrounding property, according to a federal lawsuit filed Wednesday.

The lawsuit claims Northrop Grumman, which is based in Virginia, did not notify residents their groundwater may contain trichloroethylene, or TCE, which causes cancer.

The contamination came to light only after TCE was detected near the Fantastic Caverns tourist site near Springfield in 2018, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of two Springfield families who said the contamination made their land and businesses “worthless” and led to health problems. Attorneys from Peiffer Wolf Carr Kane & Conway are seeking class-action certification to represent other affected families.

Vic Beck, a spokesman for Northrop Grumman said the company had not yet seen the lawsuit. He said the company has worked closely with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources and the community for 20 years to address environmental concerns at the site.

The property was previously owned by Litton Industries, which used TCE to manufacture circuit boards. Northrup Grumman bought the site in 2001 and knew at the time about the contamination, according to the lawsuit.

It was November, 2018 when Fantastic Caverns announced that abnormal levels of a dangerous chemical solvent had been found in its cave.

Tests showed that the chemical was TCE and that it originated from an industry site located three miles away near the Springfield/Branson National Airport that had been in operation from the 1960s to 2007.

Northrop Grumman conducted clean-up operations at the site but the Department of Natural Resources found that TCE had gotten into the karst topography and two layers of water (the shallower Springfield aquifer and the deeper Ozark aquifer) that some nearby residents used for their wells.

“For more than a decade Northrup has allowed TCE to escape from its site,” said Peiffer Wolf Managing Partner Joseph Peiffer. “They intentionally hid the extent of the contamination from the public. Northrup Grumman’s actions are putting Springfield’s residents in harm’s way. We’re fighting on behalf of anyone whose lives or properties have been affected by this dangerous chemical. Families were being exposed to a human carcinogen and didn’t even know to test their wells from 2004 until 2020.”

“Beyond kidney and liver cancer, TCE exposure has been linked to non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma as well as the immune and nervous systems,” added Peiffer Wolf attorney Paul Lesko. “The chemical can move thousands of feet per day through groundwater systems. The contamination site in Springfield is surrounded by land that is rich in underground caves and springs. The topography of the area makes TCE spread over long distances.”

And the information may have never come to light had it not been for the discovery of TCE at Fantastic Caverns.

“This has been I think swept under the rug as a political thing,” said scientist Tom Aley at the time of the finding.

“Northrup Grumman could have stopped well owners from drinking and bathing in TCE contaminated water,” Peiffer said. “But they hid it from the public. The families of Springfield deserve better.”

One of the families involved in the lawsuit is Don York, his wife, his daughter, and his son-in-law.

They live less than a quarter-mile from the old Litton site.

“We poured our savings into making our property a better place,” Don York said. “We spent about $600,000 to buy the property and fix it up for our family.”

“Now it’s worth nothing,” his daughter Alisha York Stradling said of the property’s value.

“TCE has been a nightmare for my family,” Don continued. “My brother lived on the property for seven years and used the same polluted water to shower and cook that we did. He was diagnosed with kidney issues and passed away a few years ago. I believe TCE exposure contributed to his health problems. We don’t know for sure because we can’t go back and look now that he’s gone but we didn’t know about TCE back then. Now we spend nights lying awake wondering if we’ll get sick too. Mentally it has affected our health.”

Testing in the area around the old Litton site turned up 74 water wells that had TCE contamination.

“We think there are other properties that have well water that’s been contaminated and other people that have issues,” Lesko said. “That’s why we feel this should be certified as a class-action. Many people were hurt by this and as stated in our complaint we’re seeking damages in excess of $5 million.”

“We expect that there are hundreds if not thousands of families who have been impacted by this,” Peiffer added. “That’s because of the way TCE flows through the aquifers and the unique topography around Springfield. You’ve got families that are literally bathing, drinking, and cooking in a carcinogen. And who wants to buy or live around a property that has carcinogens in the water? This is a poison in Springfield and in the water. Northrup Grumman knew about it but didn’t do anything about it and that’s why we’re here.”

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