MUSCATINE — An RV parked on Grandview Avenue in Muscatine has become a makeshift mobile law office for a group of lawyers negotiating a settlement with Grain Processing Corporation over harmful pollution.
The lawyers claim they have reached an agreement with GPC, where residents who have lived within 1.5 miles of the plant for at least eight years could win up to $33,000, depending on proximity to the plant, home ownership status and other factors. At the same time, a class action lawsuit against GPC continues its way through court.
Class counsel argue the mobile law office is a means of soliciting their clients, without offering complete, unbiased information about the terms of the settlement or their options for staying in the class action.
A Muscatine County District Court judge has already temporarily ordered the removal of a giant billboard on Grandview Avenue, which included the phone number to contact lawyers about the settlement. On Monday, the judge will consider whether lawyers are allowed to continue operating the mobile law office on Grandview Avenue.
Residents in Muscatine's Southend, near the GPC plant on Oregon Street, have said a dense fog travels over the neighborhood, leaving behind a film of ash on homes and vehicles. The smoke also carries a distinct smell with it, that residents have described as "burnt rubber" or "rotten eggs."
In 2012, residents joined together to sue the company, and last May, the Iowa Supreme Court certified the suit as a class action. Eight residents who live within 1.5 miles of the plant were seeking compensation for the loss of enjoyment of their properties.
Shortly after the class was certified, more than 200 residents began filing individual lawsuits against GPC, claiming pollution has damaged their properties and harmed their health.
GPC argues it has been working for years to reduce emissions and improve technology at the plant, including building an $83 million dryer house with environmental controls in 2015. Around the same time, GPC transitioned from coal to natural gas. The company argues it has been operating its plant long before most residents moved into the area, and thus should not be penalized.
While the class action continues through court, this month, GPC reached a settlement with lawyers filing individual lawsuits. The class action lawsuit is separate from the settlement. A trial date for the class action has been scheduled for July 2018.
After the Iowa Supreme Court upheld the class action lawsuit certification and residents began filing individual lawsuits against GPC, the corporation began settlement negotiations, according to attorney Ronald Parry in court documents.
Parry said GPC elected to make the settlement available to the attorneys’ current clients, as well as qualifying residents who live within 1.5 miles of the plant. On Sept. 13, the lawyers announced a settlement has been reached. Some residents, out of the more than 5,000 eligible to participate in the class action, have been opting out of the class and joining the settlement.
Under the terms of the settlement, the maximum amount of compensation per household is $33,000. A household that qualifies for the maximum amount must have at least four people living at the residence, be owned by the homeowner for at least eight years and be located within a quarter-mile of the plant. The amount of compensation will decrease depending on proximity to the plant, whether the residence is owned or rented, plus how many people have resided in the home for at least six months.
One-third of the money residents win in compensation will go to the group of attorneys. While the agreement lists only maximum amount of compensation, class action lawyers said in a brief that based off the settlement formula, the range of damages is $22,000 to $1,879 for owner-households, and from $16,500 to $1,409 for renter-households.
Parry and other lawyers, who have reached the settlement with GPC, argue the agreement is the most attractive option for Southend residents looking to win compensation as soon as possible. Class action counsel argues the settlement protects GPC more than it benefits Muscatine residents.
By signing the settlement agreement, residents surrender the right to sue GPC for use and enjoyment of property, diminution in property value, annoyance, fear of health harms and other reasons.
The settlement also requires residents to release any and all claims related to future ownership or operation of the GPC facility, meaning residents would be prohibited from suing the company in the future. The exception, according to the settlement, is if there is an unexpected catastrophic event, such as a plant explosion. If such an event were to happen, residents likely would only be able to sue through a citizen action suit, which would deal with violations of Environmental Protection Agency or other regulations, and would not result in personal damages compensation.
Homeowners who choose to sign the settlement also would agree to place a permanent easement on their properties, consistent with the ongoing operation of GPC’s facility. The easement would be attached to a residence’s title and would bind future purchasers. Residents would also be recognizing the existence of a prescriptive easement, because GPC has released emissions for more than a decade prior to 2012.
Along with other provisions, the settlement requires residents to acknowledge GPC is working to reduce emissions. And, if GPC “so desires,” residents agree to assist GPC’s counsel in understanding future litigation. If residents are called as a witness in a trial, they are required to contact GPC’s attorney prior to testimony “for preparation.”
Class action lawsuit
While lawyers in the class action continue to argue against the “solicitation” of their clients by attorneys negotiating the settlement, they also are preparing for a major trial date next summer.
Residents who have lived within 1.5 miles of the GPC plant between April 2007 and this year are automatically included in the class, which seeks compensation for the loss of enjoyment of properties due to pollution. Unlike the settlement agreement, the class action does not distinguish between homeowners or renters, and is based on individuals rather than households.
If the class action succeeds in court, residents will be notified about how to claim their share of the money recovery. If the class does not succeed, class members will not be able to file individual lawsuits against GPC in the future, according to the notice.
Class members have the option to opt out of the class, which would allow them to file individually or hire the attorneys working on the GPC settlement. Class counsel, however, argues the class action is the most effective vehicle to advance claims against polluters and provide people, without the means of hiring an individual lawyer, the leverage to pursue those claims.
Class action lawyers argue they know the case the best, by having worked on it for five years, and eventual compensation could potentially exceed the settlement amounts, depending on the outcome.
A trial in the class action lawsuit is scheduled for July 9, 2018, at the Muscatine County Courthouse.