Fire reignites memory of wood grinding controversy

A massive fire at a wood grinding company in Goshen was caused by the facility’s machinery.

The Elkhart Township Fire Department’s initial investigation found that the fire at Martin Animal Bedding, 21918 S.R. 119, started in a wood grinder.

A wood grinder is a large, slender device which takes pieces of wood and grinds it into dust and chips that can be used for animal and barn bedding. There are only a handful of wood grinding facilities in Elkhart County. Martin Animal Bedding and Soil Solutions—formerly VIM Recycling.

Martin Animal Bedding is fairly new to the game. It received its first special use permit in November, 2008. After three years of operation it asked the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA) to allow for an addition to be put on the property. After the BZA denied the company’s request, Martin Bedding started looking at new properties where it could build a larger facility.

In 2012, County Commissioners approved the rezoning of a piece of agricultural property to a manufacturing zone at 65488 C.R. 17. The property already belonged to the Martin family.

“They’re nearly complete” said Chris Godlewski, Plan Director for Elkhart County, discussing the company’s new site on C.R. 17, “it’s a large building, much larger than the one they’re in now. It just took a long time to build, run utilities there, electric, get their IDEM permit.”

According to IDEM, Martin Animal Bedding applied for a new permit in September, 2013. IDEM has 365 days to review the permit, although the department said it usually takes less time than that.

Godlewski and county commissioner, Frank Lucchese both said wood recycling facilities are essential to handle all the waste produced by the growing industrial manufacturers in the county. However, many residential communities don’t want grinding plants near their homes for fear of dust or fires.

Commissioner Lucchese heard complaints from the community living around VIM Recycling before and after its 2007 fatal fire. He said the concerns are about dust, noise and foul stench coming from wood piles on the company’s property.

In regard to Martin Animal Bedding, Lucchese said he’s heard only a few complaints, primarily about some dust or production noise.

“That's one of the reasons why they wanted to move the Martin's facility out of the neighborhood there and down to a more rural area,” Lucchese added.

Wood grinding facilities are characterized by smoldering piles of dust and soggy piles of wood. As Lucchese explained, “what you're seeing is the decomposition of the wood. It creates heat it creates the smoke that you see on a cool morning. As long as they keep turning these piles there shouldn't be a fire. That's how they maintain these piles—as long as you turn them there won't be a fire.”

But some people are concerned that these plants, by nature, are dangerous.

Kim Ferraro is a staff attorney at the Hoosier Environmental Council. She is handling a lawsuit against Soil Solutions, formerly VIM recycling, for the fatal fire caused by an explosion.

Ferraro called wood grinding businesses as “perfect storm(s) and setting(s) for sparks and big fires.” Based on what happened at Elkhart’s VIM, Ferraro said she was not surprised to hear that another fire occurred at Martin Animal Bedding.

A final decision regarding the VIM recycling case is still pending; meaning neighbors living around the plant will have to wait for any final decision to be made.

While Ferraro draws similarities between the dangers of these potentially combustible wood grinders, other in Elkhart County are slow to see the connection.

Godlewski said Wednesday’s fire was “less complex” than the major VIM fire. The area around VIM was more densely populated and involved a larger-scale grinding operation.

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