MUSCATINE — A lawsuit claiming several Muscatine residents have suffered damages from pollution caused by Grain Processing Corporation will move forward.
The Iowa Supreme Court unanimously voted to certify the case as a class-action suit Friday. The class affects residents who lived within 1.5 miles of the GPC plant between 2007 and 2012, which is about 4,000 people.
Jim Larew, of the Larew Law Office in Iowa City, one of the attorneys who filed the suit in 2012, said the certification decision is a "boost for citizens in Iowa and Muscatine who seek remedies under Iowa law for harms caused by air pollution."
According to the lawsuit, 11 plaintiffs "seek damages to remediate their properties, and seek compensation for the loss of the use and enjoyment of their properties."
Plaintiffs argue they have suffered from chemicals used by GPC, such as hydrochloric acid and sulfur dixoide, which "caus(es) the emissions of Sulfur Dioxide and the creation of Sulfuric Acid in the atmosphere."
"Also present, but unseen, are the various chemicals intentionally released by Defendant," the suit reads. "Due to the topography and meteorological conditions in Muscatine, human exposure and damage to property due to the pollutants released from Defendant's facility are likely compounded."
Larew said now that the suit has been class certified, "it is a very significant case for Iowans and residents of Muscatine."
"It clearly indicates that state class action statute can be an appropriate vehicle to advance common law claims against polluters, where you have many people who have been subjected to the same pollutants," he said.
In a news release sent Friday morning, GPC spokeswoman Janet Sichterman wrote, "The Court’s decision has negative ramifications for large and small businesses throughout our state who meet stringent permit requirements but are still subjected to lawsuits from neighbors who have moved near those businesses. GPC will vigorously defend this lawsuit on its own behalf and for other businesses."
Sichterman wrote "GPC is disappointed the Iowa Supreme Court has allowed a class certification to be upheld" and GPC is working to review its "best legal strategy going forward."
She also wrote GPC has been working to lower emissions "by making investments in a new and fully operational $83 million feed dryer house," as well as eliminating coal as a fuel source.
GPC was fined a $1.5 million penalty for pollution violations in March 2014, following a lawsuit filed by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller in 2011. It was the highest-ever state penalty for environmental violations, and also required GPC to fully convert from coal-fired boilers to natural gas.
Larew said Friday's decision by the Iowa Supreme Court was a "reaffirmation" of Miller's lawsuit against GPC and the rights of Iowa residents.
"I'm very impressed that people would step up the way they have," he said. "It's been something to watch and it doesn't happen often, but it's inspiring when it does."
Larew said GPC has about a month to review the class-action certification, and if it continues to move forward, the case will be processed in Muscatine County District Court.