After years of wrangling, lawsuits and more, a tentative end is in sight to long-standing complaints centered on a controversial wood-grinding operation west of Elkhart.
The Old U.S. 33 has a long, checkered history: Look here.
Neighbors living around Soil Solutions Inc. and the company have reached a tentative agreement to resolve a four-year-old federal lawsuit charging that the firm is a nuisance and health hazard. Under terms of the accord, subject to final approval at a June 16 U.S. District Court hearing in Hammond, Soil Solutions would clean the massive mounds of wood and wood waste piled at the Old U.S. 33 location in Baugo Township. It would have five years to complete the cleanup, then it would have to halt wood-grinding operations.
"Everything has to go. They have to have it cleaned out," Wayne Stutsman, who lives in the neighborhood and has spearheaded efforts to close the operation, said Tuesday, March 11.
Kim Ferraro, one of the attorneys for the neighbors, said another provision of the tentative accord prevents Soil Solutions from turning the operation into another industrial waste facility once the wood-grinding operation is gone. The accord was the focus of a court hearing last week.
"The operation itself is just inherently harmful and disruptive," she said Tuesday. "It's just really the only way."
Stacey Petrovas, vice president at Soil Solutions, said the company had been gradually clearing away the accumulated wood piles. Now, presuming the agreement gets a green light, the company will accelerate the process, while continuing to grind fresh material that comes in, at least until the five-year period expires.
He expressed disappointment, pointing to the stewardship of previous owner VIM Recycling, during which the excess wood piles started accumulating and growing. "We're fighting for something we didn't do," Petrovas said.
Still, the legal costs were mounting, he said, which factored in the decision to reach a settlement.
VIM Recycling previously owned and operated the wood-recycling plant, which takes industrial wood scraps from area manufacturers and grinds the material into animal bedding and mulch. Neighbors long railed against VIM. And after a 2007 dust explosion that killed a worker and caused a massive fire fueled by the huge wood piles on the facility's grounds, they redoubled their efforts.
The criticism continued when Soil Solutions took over and Ferraro and Stutsman said the problems — wafting dust and strong odor — never went away.
"They can move it someplace else. I don't care if they grind as long as it's not in our neighborhood or anybody else's," said Stutsman.
Petrovas, meanwhile, defended the operation under Soil Solutions' management.
"If there's an issue we're causing, we'd fix it if it were brought to our attention," he said, maintaining that dust emissions, a big point of contention, have stayed within the facility's large indoor grinding warehouse. "As far as fugitive dust, I don't know that any has gotten away."
Stutsman and other neighbors have been campaigning against the operation for around 14 years, ever since VIM first moved to the Old U.S. 33 location. They made their case against the operation to Elkhart County officials and state and federal environmental officials, with limited success, before filing suit, first in Elkhart County court then in the U.S. District Court in South Bend.
After the long, circuitous process, Stutsman said he feels a sense of vindication.
"There's no question about that," he said. "We're pleased."
The neighbors first filed suit against VIM Recycling in U.S. District Court in October 2009. A federal judge initially dismissed the case in 2010, but an appellate court reversed that decision in 2011, sending it back to U.S. District Court. It subsequently gained class-action status, expanding the pool of plaintiffs to around 1,700 people in the neighborhood where the facility is located.
VIM, which was operated by Ken Will, is not covered by the tentative accord and the suit against that entity continues.