The Commercial Appeal
Factory accused of toxic history
Suit cites ‘chronic’ pollutant discharges
BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. — On a Saturday morning 18 months ago, Husley Hunt looked up from his pond to witness a sight that was particularly troubling to someone who’s health- conscious, grows organic vegetables and ardently hopes to live to be 100.
Workers were cleaning up chemical pollution from his property.
“They were vacuuming stuff out of this ditch,” said Hunt, 66, pointing to a slender waterway shrouded in heavy vegetation.
“That water still ain’t looking right .”
The cleanup was prompted by a spill at the Teknor Apex Tennessee Co. plant across the highway from Hunt’s property.
The December 2010 incident seemed at the time like an isolated incident at a plant that long has enjoyed a sterling reputation and strong local backing as the largest employer in economically depressed Haywood County and a vital contributor to civic life in Brownsville, located 50 miles northeast of Memphis.
But a review of a federal database by the environmental group Tennessee Clean Water Network found that the plant, which manufactures garden hoses and chemicals used in automotive interiors and wire insulation, has a history of discharging toxic pollutants in its storm water and wastewater.
“This is the worst one we’ve ever seen,” said Renée Victoria Hoyos, executive director of the
Citing “serious and chronic” violations of discharge permits, the group in March gave 60- day notice of its intent to file a federal lawsuit under the Clean Water Act against Teknor Apex.
Just before the notice period was up, however, the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation filed its own lawsuit against the company in Davidson County Chancery Court. Under the court action, the company could face civil penalties of up to $10,000 per day.
In its complaint, TDEC documented dozens of what it called “significant” violations of discharge limits dating back to 2008 involving the chemical bis(2- ethylhexyl) phthalate, commonly known as DEHP.
Used in the production of polyvinyl chloride, it is classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a probable human carcinogen. But perhaps its biggest threat is to aquatic life, which can sustain reproductive damage and other effects from the substance.
The excessive discharges of DEHP — some of them 20 to more than 50 times above the allowable limits — went into an unnamed tributary to Little Nixon Creek, which flows into a larger stream emptying into the South Fork Forked Deer River.
Teknor Apex also exceeded limits on pollution for oil and grease, suspended solids and chemicals known as phthalate esters. And the waste - water the company discharged into the local sewage -treatment system violated the limits set for DEHP, ammonia and other pollutants.
The company’s pollution problems date back to at least 2004, when TDEC issued a notice of violation, the state complaint shows. And in 2005 through 2008, three state inspections resulted in Teknor Apex receiving an “unsatisfactory” rating for permit compliance. In March 2011, the state issued another notice of violation.
In the wake of the state complaint, Teknor Apex general manager Rob Lincer said the company was “disappointed” by the state’s decision to file suit. He said Teknor Apex is rectifying the pollution problems.
“Things are definitely moving in the right direction, and our plan right now is to work with TDEC,” Lincer said.
After the December 2010 spill onto Hunt’s property, he said, the plant “started doubling down on our efforts to get things straightened out.”
Although they exceeded permit limits, the discharges caused no noticeable damage to aquatic life, Lincer said.
“We had downstream sampling that (showed) things looked fine.”
One of several facilities operated by a Rhode Island-based firm, the Teknor Apex plant employs more than 500 people in Brownsville and offers the “best pay and benefits in Haywood County,” Lincer said, citing surveys done by the firm.
That, plus the half-million or so dollars the plant pays in city and county taxes each year, helps explain the strong support Teknor Apex gets from local leaders — and the lack of support Hunt says he’s gotten from officials.
“Nobody wanted to take an interest on my behalf,” he said.
For years, Haywood has been buffeted by job losses as companies such as MTD Cub Cadet, maker of lawn and garden tractors, shut down plants. Between 2000 and 2010, the county’s population fell by more than 1,000, from 19,979 to 18,787, Census figures show. Unemployment has hovered in the 11 percent to 13 percent range.
“They’re our biggest plant, our biggest employer,” County Mayor Franklin Smith said of Teknor Apex. “I don’t know what we’d do without them.”
Smith also praised the company for its involvement in civic activities. “They’re very community-minded,” he said.
While insisting he’s “all for clean water,” Smith said he was skeptical of the environmental group’s tactics and motives. “I’m concerned about Ms. Hoyos,” he said.
But leaders of the clean-water group insist they’re not trying to shut down the plant. “We just want them to comply with the terms of their permit,” said staff attorney Stephanie Matheny.
Group members also questioned whether the company’s support extends far beyond Brownsville, all the way to Nashville. They note that current TDEC commissioner Robert Martineau formerly represented Teknor Apex while an attorney in private practice. He represented the plant three years ago after it was cited by TDEC for “reporting deficiencies” regarding its air emissions.
Hoyos said Martineau “has a clear conflict of interest in this case,” adding that Teknor Apex stands to benefit from TDEC’s intervention. Under the federal lawsuit her group would have pursued, Teknor Apex could have faced penalties of up to $37,500 a day — nearly four times the maximum the state court could impose.
However, TDEC spokeswoman Meg Lockhart said Martineau had no role in the state’s decision to intervene. Upon his appointment last year, Martineau filed a list of all of his potential conflicts of interest — including Teknor Apex — with the department’s general counsel.
She said in an e -mail that the decision to intervene came after the general counsel and the Attorney General’s office determined that the allegations in the environmental group’s notice were persuasive enough that “we would go directly to court.”
The reason the Clean Water Act requires environmental groups to give 60- day notice of lawsuits, Lockhart said, is to allow federal and state regulators the chance to pursue enforcement action on their own.
Also, the state’s intervention means any penalties against Teknor Apex will go to Tennessee’s environmental protection fund. Under the federal lawsuit sought by the group, the money would go to the U.S. Treasury.
“We think it is important to ensure that any penalties assessed in the state actually benefit Tennessee,” Lockhart said.
Back at his property, Hunt said he just wants to make sure the pollution problems are eliminated. Some members of his family have lived to beyond 100, and he intends to, also.
“I told the plant manager ... You’ve got to take care of your plant, but I have to look after my family and myself,” he said.
— Tom Charlier: (901) 529-2572