A federal judge has formally signed off on the accord calling for the eventual departure of a controversial wood-grinding operation west of Elkhart.
The agreement, approved Monday, June 16, by U.S. District Court Judge Philip Simon in a Hammond courtroom, doesn’t immediately close Soil Solutions, source of irritation and worse for many living around the firm. But it requires the company, which recycles scrap wood from area manufacturers, to gradually wind down operations, remove wood waste accumulated on the Old U.S. 33 site and leave in five years, partially resolving a dispute that dates to 2000.
"Making a profit and having a business is all well and good, recycling is all well and good,” Kim Ferraro, the attorney for the neighbors, said by phone on Monday after Simon approved the agreement. ”But you can’t do it at the expense of other people’s lives, and that happened in this case far too long."
Ed Sullivan, Soil Solutions lawyer, maintained that the firm would have prevailed in a trial, but said the cost of continuing to fight the matter in court factored in agreeing to the settlement.
Aside from the neighbors’ support for a settlement, the ”extraordinary cost and time that’s required in (a continued court) fight didn’t make business sense,” he said.
Simon’s decision wasn’t a surprise. The judge last March granted preliminary approval to the accord, reached in negotiations between the neighbors and Soil Solutions. Nonetheless, it represents the beginning of the end of the wood-grinding business, launched in 2000 as VIM Recycling.
There will likely be problems related to company emissions in the wind-down period in the next five years, ”but there is now an end in sight,” said Ferraro, attorney for the Hoosier Environmental Council.
Likewise, Wayne Stutsman, a neighbor active in the effort against the company, said those living around the company will be watching it ”like a hawk.” The court, too, will be keeping tabs on things, he said, and Soil Solutions will name a liaison to deal with any complaints from neighbors in the next five years.
”We’re excited, very thankful this is finally coming to a close. We’ve been fighting this thing going on 14 years,” Stutsman said.
One hundred and fifty neighbors filed the suit in U.S. District Court against VIM Recycling on Oct. 27, 2009, due to complaints about dust and odor emissions from the business. The emissions, the neighbors charged, had caused respiratory problems and posed a health threat. In 2011, Soil Solutions bought out the operation — which made headlines in 2007 after a worker was killed in a series of dust explosions, which sparked a massive fire — and the suit was subsequently extended to that firm.
Then in 2013, Simon granted the case class-action status, extending the pool of plaintiffs to around 1,700 — all the people living in a swath around the company.
SUIT CONTINUES AGAINST VIM
Per the accord, Soil Solutions admitted no wrongdoing. And the lawsuit continues against VIM, Ferraro said.
A summary judgement was made earlier against VIM, and neighbors are to return to court around October or November with an estimate of damages caused by the firm, according to Ferraro.
Per Monday’s accord, Soil Solutions must draw up a covenant prohibiting certain industrial operations on the Old U.S. 33 plot when it moves, a move meant to assuage adjacent residents. That doesn’t mean Soil Solutions, which has many operations around Indiana, will necessarily leave Elkhart County, though.
Stacey Petrovas, vice president of the company, said the firm will likely search out a new site for its wood-grinding operation, which produces animal bedding and mulch. Elkhart County is ”the obvious choice” for relocation, he said, but a formal decision hasn’t been made.
Both Ferraro and Stutsman lamented what they said was inaction by state and Elkhart County authorities in intervening in the matter before it went to court. "Had they done their job, it never would’ve come to this,” Stutsman said.
After the 2007 fire, then State Rep. Craig Fry, a Democrat from Mishawaka, lobbied hard on behalf of the homeowners, who were in his district. Then Ferraro took on the case, turning to the courts for relief.