Potentially thousands of former Laurel Bay residents were not warned of serious environmental contamination while living at the U.S. Marines’ housing complex in northern Beaufort County and are owed back rent and other damages, a lawsuit filed Thursday alleges.
Eleven former residents filed the suit in Beaufort County Circuit Court on behalf of themselves and “all other similarly situated,” described in the suit as “thousands of former tenants who lived at Laurel Bay.” The complex includes about 1,100 homes.
The suit alleges the defendants — private companies that manage Laurel Bay — were aware of multiple serious contamination problems at the housing site but that they failed to adequately inform the residents.
One cause of contamination: Underground storage tanks — once used to heat homes from the late 1950s to the late 1960s or early 1970s — were abandoned and then “re-discovered during utility construction activities” in the late 1990s, according to the suit. The tanks were in “severe disrepair and leaking remnant fuel oil in close proximity to Laurel Bay homes,” the suit said.
Authorities have estimated that about 1,400 tanks were buried underground, though the exact number is unknown. In 2007, authorities began to remove the tanks. The Marine Corps claimed “all known” tanks had been removed as of September 2015.
Another cause of contamination was the extensive peeling of lead paint, the suit alleges. Notably, lead paint, which studies have linked to various health problems in children, was found in nine playgrounds at the housing complex, besides the outside of homes where paint had peeled off, the suit said.
In addition, although the pesticide chlordane was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1988, Laurel Bay management continued to use the chemical up to 1995, according to the suit. Laurel Bay homes were also especially susceptible to mold growth, the suit stated.
The plaintiffs allege that Laurel Bay management failed to disclose information about the health risks to the housing community, and therefore management didn’t honor its end of the lease. The suit said because of that, former Laurel Bay residents “sustained damages … including the overpayment of rent.” The suit seeks class-action status and requests unspecified “(g)eneral, special and consequential damages,” as well as punitive damages.
The suit also alleges the defendants violated the South Carolina Residential Landlord Tenant Act and the Lead-Based Paint Hazard Reduction Act of 1992.
Rob Metro, a Hilton Head-based attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, has been working since January with families who live or have lived in Laurel Bay. Metro was not immediately available for comment Friday.
In 2003, Tri-Command Managing Member LLC took authority over the Laurel Bay military housing complex in a 50-year lease agreement with the U.S. Navy, according to the suit. Tri-Command, now known as Atlantic Marine Corps Communities LLC, is one of the defendants in the suit. Another defendant is AMCC Property Management LLC, which served as the leasing agent for Laurel Bay families.
Representatives from the Atlantic Marine Corps Communities and AMCC Property Management were not available for comment Friday.
Questions about the Laurel Bay housing community captured national attention in January after Amanda Whatley, one of the plaintiffs, posted a YouTube video about her daughter’s leukemia. Whatley suspected her daughter’s cancer was connected to contamination at Laurel Bay, although doctors and scientists have advised caution in drawing a direct causal relationship between contamination and cancer.
As of Sept. 1, the YouTube video has been viewed over 51,000 times.
Marine Corps officials at Laurel Bay promised the results of a health study last spring, but the release date has been pushed back to the fall. Information about the study can be found at www.beaufort.marines.mil.