Suit brings unneighborly air to picture-perfect town

April 21, 1991|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,Sun Staff Correspondent

ADAMSTOWN -- Spring dresses up Adamstown to play th part of the perfect small town. Tulips wave in a warm breeze on green lawns. Prim frame houses sport wreaths on front doors and rockers on wooden porches.

This crossroads is just the kind of place a visitor can imagine neighbors chatting away a summer evening.

But neighbors here aren't always so friendly.

It is a town where few people show up for the annual, church-sponsored strawberry festival -- even when the ice cream, music and berries are free. It is a town with only a few street lights at night because the 400 residents won't band together to pay the electric bill.

And it is a town where a lawsuit over pollution of 24 private wells by the town's major employer has intensified the discord.

Pollution cases sometimes unite communities. In Adamstown, residents complain about the bills for public water they now have to pay and about the greed of the eight families who sued.

"I see a lot of family bickering and backbiting and that kind of stuff," said Herschell Gibbs, pastor of the St. Luke Church in Adamstown. "They are just not sociable."

This week, a second jury trial begins in a Frederick County courthouse to determine whether electronics manufacturer Trans-Tech Inc. will have to pay punitive and compensatory damages to the residents for polluting their wells with two cancer-causing chemicals.

The families charged that company workers dumped chemicals on Trans-Tech's grounds and contaminated the ground water. A jury already has found the company responsible for the pollution.

Opinion on the street remains divided.

Most old-timers take the company's side. The newcomers are more likely to understand the families' complaints. And the families themselves have stuck together for six years despite divorces and hard times.

"This water has been bad since before Trans-Tech came," said one longtime resident who wouldn't give his name. "These people suing this outfit, they can't prove anyone was sick. They are suing for $67 million. Now that is a lot of money," he said, smiling.

Another man was more straightforward. "I think they are trying to get money," he said.

The subject is not one most people want to talk much about with a newspaper reporter. Some said they didn't want their neighbors to know what they think. "It's hush-hush. People don't want to get involved," another person said.

But one man, John Anderson, who didn't mind being quoted, said: "I don't know what all the ruckus is about."

Mr. Anderson remembers prior water problems that brought neighbors to his house to bathe. He has lived in a white frame house in Adamstown most of his life, raising daughters who now live nearby and watching newcomers from Montgomery County or Frederick looking for cheaper land move in next door or down the street.

There are only a handful of families who have lived here more than 30 years, he said. He barely even sees the family across the street, because they commute miles out of the county to work every day.

"The only thing I can say is when Trans-Tech came to town they cleaned up the big dump," Mr. Anderson said. The company moved to town from Gaithersburg in 1981.

Another old-timer agrees. "It was a swamp. There was a silo filled with pigeon filth in it," he said.

But other residents say there is a difference between the old-timers' memories about bad water and the wells contaminated with trichloroethylene (TCE) and trichlorethane (TCA). And they say critics of the families who brought suit don't understand what they have been through since the spring of 1986, when they were told that the rashes and stomach problems they had could be caused by chemicals in their drinking water.

Virtually all of the 24 homes had TCE levels higher than the drinking water standard of 5 parts per billion, according to

James Pittman, an official at the Maryland Department of the Environment. The average was 26 parts per billion. And the TCA levels were also far above the standard.

"It affected about the whole town," said Pastor Gibbs. "Most people are angry about it."

Either they are upset that Trans-Tech was the problem or that they had to hook into a new town water system even if their wells weren't contaminated.

The families who sued will not discuss the case, nor will the attorney for Trans-Tech.

Macy Nelson of Baltimore, the attorney for the families, would say only that they "managed to stick together in this case for five years because they know they are right."

Friends and relatives say some of the families have been under tremendous strain because of their exposure to the chemicals. But since they won the first round in their case against the company, they have felt good.

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