Springfield families accuse company of contaminating drinking water with carcinogen

A federal lawsuit alleges Northrop Grumman concealed the full extent of trichloroethylene contamination in the area

By: - September 29, 2021 9:20 am

A Cole County judge ruled Thursday that Centurion Health will take over prisoner health care in Missouri. (Creative Commons photo via WeissPaarz.com ).

A federal lawsuit filed Wednesday claims Springfield residents whose homes are supplied with well water were exposed to a chemical known to cause cancer. 

Northrop Grumman, a Virginia-based aerospace and defense company, knew but failed to notify area residents for more than a decade about the extent to which trichloroethylene, or TCE, had seeped from an industrial site it owns near the Springfield-Branson Airport and contaminated the area’s groundwater, according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri on behalf of two Springfield families. 

Plaintiffs were not notified their well water was contaminated until 2018. At that point, the company had known TCE was in the region’s aquifer for years and had discovered the chemical in another private well, according to the lawsuit. 

The contamination came to light because TCE was discovered at Fantastic Caverns, a tourist cave north of town. 

“If it were not for detection of TCE in Fantastic Caverns, TCE contamination in private wells may never have come to light, and the public would still not know about TCE levels in their well water,” the lawsuit says. 

The lawsuit seeks damages for the two plaintiff families who were exposed and whose properties are now “worthless” because Northrop Grumman concealed the extent of the contamination. It also seeks certification as a class action lawsuit to represent other residents whose homes are supplied with well water within 10 miles of the contamination site. Attorneys estimate at least 74 properties were contaminated, but in a news conference said that figure was a minimum. 

The suit seeks damages in the millions for the two families and other members of the class, but attorneys did not set an exact dollar value. It also asks for a preliminary injunction to force the company to stop the TCE spread.

An attorney for the two families, Joseph Peiffer, said Northrop Grumman chose to hide the contamination from residents of Springfield for years. 

“Northrop Grumman could have stopped well owners from drinking and bathing in TCE-contaminated water, but they hid it. They hid the extent of the TCE spread from the public,” Peiffer said. “The families of Springfield deserve better.”

One of the plaintiffs, Don York, said his family just wanted to be made whole.

“It’s not our fault the property is contaminated. It’s Northrop Grumman’s fault,” York said. “We shouldn’t have to move to make up for their mistake.”

Vic Beck, a spokesperson for Northrop Grumman, said in an email that the company had not yet been served with the lawsuit and could not comment on it.

“We do, however, continue to work closely with the community and the Missouri Department of Natural Resources — a we have done for over 20 years — to address potential environmental concerns related to the former Litton Systems facility.”

TCE seepage

The site in question is an industrial facility near the Springfield-Branson airport formerly owned by Litton Industries. In the 1970s and 1980s, it used TCE in its manufacturing of circuit boards.

TCE is a clear liquid primarily used as an industrial solvent to remove grease from metal. It was used at Litton to clean circuit boards during manufacturing. 

National and international health and environmental agencies agree it’s a carcinogen that can cause kidney cancer. The federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry says there is also some evidence it can cause liver cancer and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. 

By the early 1980s, TCE had seeped from the site, and the Missouri Attorney General’s Office filed a lawsuit. At the time, TCE was not detected in nearby wells, but state officials said it would “only be a matter of time” before the chemical would find its way there if the seepage continued, according to the Springfield News-Leader.

Northrop Grumman bought the site in 2001 and, according to the lawsuit, knew in advance about TCE contamination in the immediate vicinity.

As soon as 2004, it discovered TCE in a private well in the area, according to the lawsuit. And in 2011, it was outlined plans to the Missouri Department of Natural Resources to treat two aquifers in the region that supply well water to households for TCE contamination. 

When TCE was discovered at Fantastic Caverns, miles in the opposite direction from the facility, DNR offered free testing to households in the area

Attorneys hope to learn through discovery in the lawsuit just when TCE started to spread off the Northrop Grumman property and contaminated the once clean wells.

Plaintiffs Don and Beverly York’s home water had levels of TCE 17 times higher than the maximum level deemed safe for drinking water by the Environmental Protection Agency. 

Nearby, Jack and Judy Harvey’s water had 16 times the maximum TCE level. 

Because TCE levels in the private well that had been tested since 2004 fell over time, the lawsuit assumes that before the Yorks’ and Harveys’ water was tested, TCE levels were even higher.

Both families invested in home improvements the lawsuit says are now worthless because if they want to sell their homes, they must disclose the contamination. The lawsuit says one of the families was informed by a real estate agent that they likely would not be able to sell the home. 

York and his daughter, Alisha York-Stradling, said at the news conference they tried to get Northrop Grumman to purchase the property, but the company refused. York-Stradling and her husband, Jacob Stradling, ran their small business from the property, invested in improvements and planned to buy it from her parents.

Beyond that, the lawsuit says, TCE is a threat to plaintiffs’ health.

“You’ve got families that are literally bathing in a carcinogen, that are literally drinking and cooking with a carcinogen in their water,” Peiffer said.

Don York’s brother, Terry York, lived at the home for six years and died later from kidney issues the lawsuit attributes to TCE exposure. York said he had symptoms akin to a stroke several years ago that doctors couldn’t explain. York-Stradling said she was pregnant twice while she and her husband were running their business at the property and her daughter was born with her kidneys fused together. York-Stradling began getting migraines and doesn’t know why.

She said her family didn’t know to ask whether any of those problems could be related to TCE because they didn’t know it was on the property.

Before finding out it was in their well water, York said his family had never heard of TCE. 

“Now, we spend nights lying awake wondering if we’ll get sick, too,” York said.

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Allison Kite
Allison Kite

Allison Kite is a data reporter for The Missouri Independent and Kansas Reflector, with a focus on energy, the environment and agriculture. A graduate of the University of Kansas, she previously covered City Hall for The Kansas City Star, as well as state government in both Topeka and Jefferson City.