Case against Elkhart area wood recycling firm gets class-action status
Posted: 02/05/2013 at 7:00 pm
By: Tim Vandenack
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An aerial view of the fire at VIM in the summer of 2007. The massive fire burned wood piles outside of the facility and killed one worker. Neighbors had long complained of the operation, leading to their suit and several other actions by environmental authorities in recent years. (Truth Photo By Fred Flury)
EPA Environmental Engineer Paul Ruesch discusses VIM recycling while driving on VIM's grounds on Thursday, Jan.14. Seen in the background is a stack of wood pallets kept on the grounds. (Truth Photo By Jay Seawell)
Daniel Plant, project manager, talks about the wood grinding operation of the plant in the old VIM site 9/24/2010. (Truth Photo By J. Tyler Klassen)
The latest version of the suit, filed by neighbors living around the facility last October, still maintains that smoke, dust and other emissions from the operation cause health problems and pose an environmental threat. Soil Solutions, which filed its response late last week, still denies any wrongdoing.
With newly granted class-action status, though, the number of plaintiffs theoretically spikes, from the 151 named in the original suit when first filed October 2009 up to 1,748, the number estimated to live in the broader class area outlined in court papers.
Marianne Holland, spokesman for the Hoosier Environmental Council, said Tuesday, Feb. 5, that a notice will be sent by around mid-February to the 1,700 or so people, explaining the case. They’ll be able to stay in the case as plaintiffs, or, if they choose, to opt out.
A Hoosier Environmental Council lawyer, Kim Ferraro, is handling the case for the neighbors.
644 HOUSEHOLDS, 1,748 PEOPLE
The neighbors filed their suit in U.S. District Court in South Bend, initially against VIM Recycling, long a focus of attention — and ire at times — of environmental officials and people living around the plant. VIM later sold the operation to Soil Solutions and the case was expanded to include the new firm.
The case has taken twists and turns, and the latest major development came Jan. 29, when District Judge Philip Simon granted class-action status to the case, as sought by the plaintiffs. With his ruling, the number of plaintiffs may grow to include those living in an area around the facility bound by the St. Joseph River to the north, Old U.S. 33 to the south, Ash Road to the west and Chanel View and Elliot Park to the east.
The plant is located west of Elkhart off Old U.S. 33. In his ruling, Simon cited plaintiffs’ estimates that there are 644 households in the class area around the company and 1,748 people.
For purposes of the lawsuit, the plaintiffs — if the case is ultimately decided in their favor — seek compensation for property damage caused by the wood grinding operation, according to Holland. The plaintiffs also ask that the wood recycling business be closed down.
‘DIFFERENT THAN VIM’
Contacted Tuesday, Stacy Petrovas, one of the Soil Solutions owners, reiterated company defenders’ contentions that the operation doesn’t pose a risk. “We are completely different than VIM and we haven’t done the things we’re accused of,” he said.
The firm operates within Indiana environmental norms, Petrovas said, and it has the proper permits. Furthermore, the width of roadways between wood heaps on company grounds fall within Indiana guidelines, as do the sizes of the piles, previous points of contention with Indiana authorities when VIM operated the facility.
Soil Solutions asks that the case be dismissed.
The Old U.S. 33 operation takes scrap wood from area manufacturers and grinds it into mulch and animal bedding.