A judge has approved a $50 million settlement in a class action pollution case in Muscatine. The decision is a major victory for local residents, who fought the Grain Processing Corporation for years in court.
Some 15,000 residents can now qualify for individual payouts based on their exposure to haze, odors and particles from the Grain Processing Corporation’s corn milling facility in the south end of Muscatine.
Under the agreement, GPC must pay $45 million to area residents and their lawyers, as well as spend $1.5 million on a regenerative thermal oxidizer that will reduce emissions, and spend no less than $5 million on new pollution control projects, with an emphasis on reducing odor emissions.
Individuals who saw the greatest impacts could get as much as an estimated $16,000 each. After years of litigation that took the case before the Iowa Supreme Court two times, District Judge John Telleen called the settlement "quite extraordinary."
"I very wholeheartedly find that it is a very reasonable settlement," the judge said at the court hearing Tuesday. "This is significant, significant compensation for class members."
Attorney Sarah Siskind was on the legal team representing the class members. She says the payouts could be life changing for some residents, especially households of families living closest to the plant, who could see benefits of some $80,000.
"We've seen more than one family of five," Siskind said. "If they're living close to the plant, and the expected payments are as estimated, it's getting close to five times 16 [thousand]."
Bob Weatherman was one of the plaintiffs in the case, and said the emissions from the plant severely diminshed the quality of life for those living, playing and going to school in the south end of Muscatine.
"You couldn't even see cars coming at you, the pollution was so bad. And people who lived in the south end area there, I don't know how they survived, really," Weatherman said.
Weatherman says GPC is a powerful and important part of the Muscatine community, but he says this case shows industry leaders must invest in and protect the quality of life of their neighbors while maintaining their businesses.
"It's an important industry to the community, but that doesn't give them the right to go and diminish the enjoyments some people have," Weatherman said.
An attorney representing GPC, Joshua Frank, said at the hearing Tuesday that the company supports the agreement, which means sidestepping an even longer and more costly trial process. Under the terms of the settlement, GPC admits no fault or wrongdoing in the case.
"We support the settlement as a total package," Frank said. He called the agreement fair and says it "provides meaningful benefits to the community" and "provides GPC with the certainty it needs to operate in Muscatine for years to come."
Siskind says the legal battle has been closely watched by environmental lawyers across the country.
“We're hearing from people all over the country that they never thought about doing a case like this, they'd never seen a case advance so far on the loss, use of enjoyment theory," Siskind said. "People are looking to this case now as an inspiration for other cases as a tool for environmental remediation for ordinary people who live near an industrial area.”
The legal team will now ramp up the process of collecting claim applications from residents, many of whom have already begun submitting their paperwork.
Residents who lived within a mile and a half of the plant between April 24, 2007 and September 1, 2017 have until March 19th of this year to apply for a payout. The attorneys are urging all qualified residents to file a claim and to not delay the process.
In a striking move, Telleen himself reiterated the finality of the application deadline from the bench.
"This is significant recovery, I hate to see people not take advantage of that," the judge said.
After Tuesday's formalities had been settled, the motions filed and the case officially dismissed, Weatherman said residents in Muscatine could finally rest easy.
"Now the people in the south end and the areas that are affected can actually breathe, and take a big, deep breathe and say 'thank you'."