- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 1, 2015

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) - A federal judge has ordered the former owners of a northern Indiana wood-recycling plant to pay $50.6 million in damages to people who lived nearby and contended its dust and fumes threatened their health.

U.S. District Court Judge Philip Simon last week ordered a default judgment against VIM Recycling Inc. and K.C. Industries and its owner Kenneth R. Will, with six named defendants receiving a total of $697,500 and 134 class members receiving a total of $15.6 million and 885 others receiving $34.3 million.

VIM Recycling’s activities “caused or contributed to an imminent and substantial endangerment including repeated fires, toxic smoke, dust, debris and noxious orders invading plaintiffs’ nearby homes and properties,” Simon said in his order.

Nearby residents complained they were experiencing severe headaches, eye, nose and throat irritation, chronic bronchitis, skin rashes, nausea, nosebleeds and difficulty breathing.

A message seeking comment was left for Will at a telephone number listed on court documents. In a court filing in July, Will submitted a memorandum saying the plaintiffs hadn’t established any evidence that showed the VIM facility posed an “imminent and substantial endangerment to the environment.” He asked the judge to deny the motion for a default judgment.

In 2007, one worker at the plant was killed and another seriously injured in a massive fire. State officials fined the company $10,000 for violating safety regulations.

Kim Ferraro, a staff attorney with the Hoosier Environmental Council, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of local residents in 2009, said she doesn’t know how much any of those involved in the lawsuit will actually receive. But she said Will sold the company for about $8 million in 2011 and VIM Recycling is still registered as an operating business in Indiana.

“I think what’s significant about this is the scope of harm that occurred here and the fact that a judge recognized it and put a dollar amount on it,” she said. “Even if none of the plaintiffs never see a dime, I know that many of them feel quite vindicated to finally have their story told and be understood and have justice achieved.”

Soil Solutions, which bought the facility from VMI, last year agreed 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 it is closed.

The case involving more than 1,000 Elkhart County residents obtained class-action status in 2013, two years after a federal appeals court overruled a judge’s initial dismissal of the suit.

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