Legal Victory for Elkhart Citizens
UPDATE: HEC ACHIEVES $50 MILLION JUDGMENT FOR LONG-SUFFERING ELKHART COMMUNITY
After six years of litigation, HEC obtained justice for over 1000 Elkhart citizens who suffered years of hazardous fires, noxious fumes, and harmful air pollution from irresponsible operations at VIM Recycling, an industrial waste dump and processor. HEC obtained a $50 million court judgment against VIM and its owners who established the waste dump and repeatedly violated environmental and public health and safety laws. The court judgment was awarded to compensate the community for the harm residents suffered for more than a decade due to VIM’s irresponsible operations. This victory follows a settlement HEC negotiated last year with the current owners of the site which requires them to cease operations, clean up all wastes from the site and file a deed restriction to prevent any similar industrial waste activities from being conducted at the site ever again. Also, this judgment puts into perspective the enormous cost imposed on real people, their lives and community, when a company fails to be a responsible corporate citizen and when government turns a blind eye and does not adequately enforce environmental safeguards. We hope this victory will serve to deter such bad actors and inspire other communities to not give up in the face of environmental injustice.
Read more about the history of this case below.
Read the press release here.
Numerous stories have been published regarding this newest victory. Read those at the links below.
JUSTICE FOR POLLUTION-PLAGUED COMMUNITY
People who live in a working-class suburb of Elkhart, Indiana — known as the RV capital of the world — have finally seen an end to 14 years of enduring hazardous fires, constant dust, acrid smoke and obnoxious odors from the dangerous practices of an RV waste recycler thanks to the efforts of HEC and its staff attorneys.
The community suffered for years from the pollution of VIM Recycling, a company that processed RV manufacturing waste, with continual disregard of various local, state and federal laws, creating miserable living conditions for the people who lived around the facility. In the summer of 2007, grinders not adequately cleaned of ignitable wood dust exploded, setting mountainous waste piles at the site ablaze. The massive fire raged for days, choked the air of people living nearby with black, toxic smoke, and required firefighters from over 30 fire departments, 8-10 million gallons of city water, and water from the nearby St. Joseph River to extinguish it. Although this was the largest fire at the facility, it was not the only one. The decomposing waste piles would frequently spontaneously combust, causing more fires and spewing noxious fumes into the surrounding community.
To make matters worse, the community was also victimized by the very government agencies that were supposed to be protecting them. In the face of the company’s countless, documented and willful violations of state environmental laws, fire codes, and county ordinances, residents started seeking relief from the toxic dumping in 2000 by reaching out to multiple agencies, including county officials, zoning, planning and health departments, state officials including the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Officials issued violation notices but did little to curtail the facility’s harmful operations that continued to wreak havoc on the neighbors’ lives. Even after two VIM employees were killed because of VIM’s illegal and dangerous practices, government agencies did nothing more than issue citations – mere slaps on the wrist – but never took meaningful action to curb operations much less shut the facility down.
In 2009, after years of government apathy and inaction, VIM’s neighbors took matters into their own hands. With pro bono legal assistance from the Hoosier Environmental Council, the community brought a class action lawsuit in federal court. That litigation, requiring more than 5,000 hours of HEC attorneys’ time, finally achieved far-reaching justice for the community — with entry of a consent decree requiring the current owners of the waste facility, Soil Solutions Co., to both clean up their property within five years and cease operations.
This case is a win for disadvantaged communities across the nation that are the targets for siting polluting industries that more affluent communities don’t want and are able to resist. It has set far reaching legal precedent — reaffirming the rights of citizens suffering from pollution burdens to protect their homes, families and health when regulatory agencies refuse or are unable to do so. These citizen rights have been steadily eroded by prior legal decisions allowing environmental regulatory agencies to ‘preclude’ citizen suits and courts to “abstain” from hearing them. This case also paves the way for other poor communities to come together as a class to pursue their claims in a much more cost-effective way than if each were to pursue individual cases.
To ensure compliance with the federal consent decree, representatives of both sides of the case are starting the process of on-site inspections and reporting. Community representatives will inspect the site early this month to make sure the cleanup is proceeding according to schedule and Soil Solutions will submit annual and quarterly reports of its progress to HEC. Also, a deed restriction, which is required under the consent decree, has been filed guaranteeing the site will never again be used in this damaging way.
While this ruling signifies a major victory for the people of this long-suffering, working class community, it doesn’t leave the case completely resolved. The ruling doesn’t provide compensatory damages but does leave the door open for neighbors to pursue those damages against the prior owners of the facility, Kenneth R. Will and his company, VIM Recycling, Inc., for creating the waste dump, operating it for more than a decade without proper permits, willfully violating regulations and agency orders, and devastating the lives of so many people.