The massive fire at Martin Animal Bedding wasn’t the first at a wood grinding operation in Elkhart County.
The granddaddy of such blazes occurred six-plus years ago, starting June 14, 2007, and burning over the next three days at VIM Recycling west of Elkhart in a residential Baugo Township neighborhood. One man died and another was injured in the dust explosion that started that fire, and the incident led neighbors there to mobilize against the operation, a battle that continues in U.S. District Court.
The 2007 fire also prompted debate about the environmental challenges posed by wood grinding operations, and the blaze Tuesday, Oct. 29, rekindles that discussion, at least for some. Grinding operations can generate potentially explosive dust, and common at such facilities are large piles of wood waiting to be processed.
To be sure, officials haven’t yet determined what caused the Martin Animal Bedding fire. The fire — one of six reported over the last five years there — destroyed the main structure off C.R. 36 west of Goshen, where wood was ground into animal bedding for use at area farms.
But as Wayne Stutsman sees it, fires at wood grinding operations are going to happen, and if that’s the case, better that such facilities be out in the country, where there’s less potential to harm or bother people. Stutsman lives near the old VIM operation, renamed Soil Solutions and now run by different operators, and he’s spearheaded the grassroots efforts against the Baugo Township business.
“If it’s going to happen, let’s have it happen where it’s a ways from the neighbors,” Stutsman said Tuesday.
Dust continues to be an issue for him and other neighbors around Soil Solutions, Stutsman maintains, alluding to one of the issues neighbors cited in suing VIM and Soil Solutions in federal court. Martin Animal Bedding will soon move to a new facility south of the structure destroyed Tuesday, and if that rural location spares residential neighborhoods from having to co-exist with a wood grinder “so be it.”
A Soil Solutions rep spoke out against Martin Animal Bedding at a 2011 hearing on Martin’s request for a special permit to keep operating.
But there were no ill words Tuesday from Stacy Petrovas, the Soil Solutions co-owner. “It’s just unfortunate,” Petrovas said.
He just countered Stutsman’s contention that Soil Solutions, as Stutsman maintains, is a smelly, dusty nuisance, like VIM before it.
“I know it’s changed,” said Petrovas, citing the improvements at the Old U.S. 33 operation, like a new dust-collection system. “Less dust, less odor. We’re cleaning up the place.”