Judge approves Indiana to shutter wood chip plant

(WTHI Photo, file)
(WTHI Photo, file)

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The operators of a northern Indiana wood-recycling plant sued by neighbors who alleged its dust and fumes threatened their health and kept them indoors must clean up and shutter the site within five years under a class-action settlement given final approval Monday by a federal judge.

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Simon, who had given the settlement involving Soil Solutions Co. his preliminary approval in March, declared the agreement “fair, reasonable and adequate” during the hearing in his Hammond courtroom.

The agreement requires Soil Solutions to remove all wood wastes from the Elkhart plant, shutter the site by July 2019 and obtain a restrictive covenant barring similar operations from using the complex after the closure of the plant, which grinds scrap wood into animal bedding and mulch.

Environmental attorney Kim Ferraro had sued VIM Recycling on behalf of local residents in 2009, two years before the plant was sold to Soil Solutions. She said the plant’s neighbors had endured respiratory and other health woes and been forced inside by dust and fumes since it opened 2000.

The case involving 1,800 Elkhart residents obtained class-action status last year, two years after a federal appeals court overruled a judge’s initial dismissal of the suit.

Ferraro said she remains troubled that legal action was needed after she said Elkhart County officials and state environmental regulators failed to respond promptly to address the concerns of the plant’s neighbors.

“Although it’s a victory — and I know my clients are thrilled — I think it’s a shame that it took so long,” she said. “And we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is this really the way things should be? Is this is a breakdown of government that a community can’t get relief from such obviously unhealthy conditions?’”

Ed Sullivan, an attorney who represented Fort Wayne-based Soil Solutions in the lawsuit, said the company has disavowed the actions of VIM Recycling, which owned the plant between 2000 and 2011. He said under the settlement Soil Solutions admits no wrongdoing and will only shutter its Elkhart plant.

Sullivan said the settlement will end the company’s exposure to any liability stemming from the plant’s earlier operations and sets a process for removing the site’s remaining wood wastes.

“It’s beneficial to both parties and the community at large,” he said.

Wayne Stutsman, a retired industrial electrician who has lived with his wife, Barbara, near the plant for 41 years, said they’re thrilled with the settlement’s approval even though the plant won’t have to close for five more years following a cleanup of the site.

“We’re just elated that this thing is finally going to be over, but the five years can’t come fast enough,” he said. “This is what we’ve been after all these years.”

Ferraro, who’s the Hoosier Environmental Council’s staff attorney, said that under the settlement the company must file quarterly and annual reports on the amount of wood wastes remaining at the site. A January site survey found about 300,000 cubic yards of wood wastes remaining, she said.

Ferraro said the settlement forbids Soil Solutions from moving some of the smelliest of those wastes during weekends and holidays.

Although the settlement has been approved, Ferraro will continue to seek monetary damages against VIM Recycling, the plant’s former operator.

Judge Simon gave Ferraro 120 days to file a motion detailing the damages she’ll seek from VIM Recycling on behalf of the residents.

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