Several hundred households in Elkhart County celebrated a legal victory nearly five years in the making.
Monday, June 16, a federal judge in Hammond, IN gave final approval for a settlement reached in a massive environmental class action lawsuit.
The settlement requires Soil Solutions, current owner of a wood grinding facility located on Old US 33 in Elkhart County, to gradually wind down over the next five years. By the end of that time period Soil Solutions must shutter up operations and remove all wood waste remaining at the site.
“This is certainly a huge victory for this long disenfranchised Elkhart community,” said Kim Ferraro, senior attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council representing nearby residents in the lawsuit. “However, it is also a win for disadvantaged communities across the nation that are, all too often, the targets for sitting polluting industries that more affluent communities don’t want and are able to resist.”
VIM Recycling moved to the 29,000 block of U.S. 33 in Baugo Twp. In 200 after the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) ordered the company to halt wood grinding at its Goshen site due to “fugitive dust” violations.
IDEM continued to cite and fine VIM’s Baugo Twp. operation for improperly dumping wood waste and fugitive dust emission. However, it wasn’t until June 14, 2007 that the facility sparked controversy in a wider area.
Inadequately cleaned grinders exploded, setting mountainous waste piles at the site ablaze. The massive fire raged for days and required firefighters from over 30 departments to extinguish the flames.
“When you have that much wood and waste sitting around it is a fire hazard,” explained Ferraro, “the piles internally combust and grinding in those machines ignites some of the dust and it easily spreads because the piles are so close.”
To date, many of the piles that ignited in the summer of 2007 remain on location.
The initial lawsuit was filed in 2009 against VIM Recycling, not its new owners Soil solutions. When Solutions purchased VIM in 2011, it subsequently inherited the lawsuit.
Plaintiffs alleged that the operations of the wood waste recycling facility resulted in pollution that damaged their property. Additionally, they claimed that the dust and odors were “nuisances” that “trespassed” onto private property.
Ferraro explained that VIM worked with “class C” types of wood that were treated with chemicals and resins. The grinding process released those chemicals into the air and caused health risks such as skin irritation, respiratory issues and heart attacks.
In 2013, a federal judge granted it class-action status and expanded the scope of representation to nearly 1,800 people.
Wayne Stutsman was one of the residents representing the class of plaintiffs.
“We’re very pleased for the neighborhood that we’re going to be able to hopefully enjoy our lives, enjoy our homes and enjoy being outside without the odor and the dust falling like snow,” said Stutsman.
A long-time resident, Stutsman said he noticed a change for the worse almost immediately after VIM moved in.
“Reports from families with children that kids would be standing out waiting for the bus and they would get sick to their stomach—so sick they’d have to go back to the house” Stutsman said the smell of decaying and smoldering wood was so bad it made people nauseous at times.
He and other neighbors turned to county government and officials in Indianapolis for assistance but said they fell short of solving the problem. It wasn’t until the Hoosier Environmental Council took on the case that progress started to be made, said Stutsman.
Over the past few years Stutsman and a group of dedicated friends have cataloged dust residue on windowsills, pools, furniture, cars and much, much more, to build a case against the active wood grinding facility.
In the end, Soil Solutions settled with the residents.
“It was a business decision,” said Ed Sullivan, attorney for Soil Solutions.
Even though Soil Solutions believed everything it did was within permit, was within the law, and that they were drastically improving the situation, Sullivan said it was going to be too costly to fight the class action suit any longer.
“The neighbors were adamant, given the history they experienced, I don’t think they thought any similar facility would be satisfactory to them,” Sullivan explained. He called the settlement good for both sides.
Over the next five years Soil Solutions will have time to move out of its facility in a matter that won’t disrupt business. At the same time, the company will help neighbors by removing and processing the organic waste material that has been sitting there for years.
Sullivan said most of the “problem” material was deposited at the site under VIM, not Soil Solutions. However, the residual dust and mulch-like smells coming from the firm under the new ownership were too much for residents to put up with.
The case is not completely resolved. The ruling does not award any financial damages to the plaintiffs, however, it leaves the door open for members of the lawsuit to pursue damages against prior owners of the facility, Kenneth Will and his company, VIM Recycling, Inc. for creating the waste dump, operating it for more than a decade without proper permits, and violating regulations and agency orders.