- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) - Northern Indiana residents who sued a wood-recycling plant, alleging that its dust and other emissions threatens their health and keeps them indoors, are awaiting a federal judge’s approval of a settlement calling for the Elkhart plant’s operators to clean up and shutter the site within five years.

The proposed settlement of the class-action suit also calls for Soil Solutions Co. to obtain a restrictive covenant barring similar operations from using the site after it’s closed.

Environmental attorney Kim Ferraro sued VIM Recycling on behalf of local residents in 2009, two years before the plant was sold to Soil Solutions.

A federal judge dismissed that suit in 2010, but the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago overturned that ruling in 2011, clearing the way for the suit to proceed against the plant, which grinds scrap wood into animal bedding and mulch.

The case obtained class-action status last year. Ferraro said the 1,800 residents who joined the suit are looking forward to a June 16 hearing where a federal judge in Hammond, who gave his preliminary approval in March to the settlement, will consider giving it his final approval.

She said the deal means the plant’s neighbors won’t have to wait through more years of litigation and an uncertain outcome.

“What they’ve wanted all along is for that place to be closed down and cleaned up, and this provides the clarity and the end in sight for that to happen,” Ferraro said. “They’ll finally be able to get their lives back and live in their homes comfortably and use their yards. That’s really the point of this - to put that community back the way it was.”

Ferraro, who’s the Hoosier Environmental Council’s staff attorney, said the plaintiffs will continue to seek monetary damages against the plant’s former operator, VIM Recycling.

Soil Solutions has disavowed the actions of VIM Recycling, which owned the plant between 2000 and 2011.

Ed Sullivan, an attorney who represents Soil Solutions in the lawsuit, said the company will only shutter its Elkhart location under the settlement.

Once the deal is approved, he said Soil Solutions will assess how much material remains at the site and needs to be removed over the next five years.

“This arrangement gives the homeowners what they want, and it gives time for the company to work its way out of that location in a way that won’t disrupt their business too greatly,” Sullivan said.

Ferraro said a January survey at the plant site found about 300,000 cubic yards of wood wastes.

Wayne Stutsman, a retired industrial electrician who lives near the plant, said he and other neighbors who’ve endured the dust and emissions produced by its operations are delighted by the tentative settlement.

“We’re thankful that we have a judge who’s looking at this case and has said, ‘Enough is enough,’” he said.

Stutsman, 69, said that since shortly after the plant opened at the site in 2000, it began producing a large amount of dust and persistent smells that have made life difficult for its neighbors.

He and his wife, Barbara, have lived in their home 41 years. But Stutsman said the site sometimes releases so much dust that winds carry that material onto his neighborhood almost like snow falling in winter, coating everything and creating breathing problems for residents.

“It’s just unbelievable the number of people you hear coughing and sneezing when they’re outside during the night or the day,” he said.

Ferraro said she’s disappointed that local and state government didn’t act aggressively against the plant despite its impact on so many nearby residents.

She said the Indiana Department of Environmental Management had documented that the plant committed multiple violations of Indiana’s open dumping and solid waste laws, but the agency “didn’t really do enforcement or impose meaningful fines.”

IDEM spokeswoman Amy Smith said the department had “worked to the fullest extent of its authority to resolve violations” its staff found at the plant involving its air permit.

She said IDEM had imposed civil penalties in excess of $85,000 against the plant over the years.

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