MUSCATINE, Iowa —There are 11 people named in a class-action lawsuit filed Monday against Grain Processing Corp.’s Muscatine facility.
Before it’s done, that suit could grow to include 17,000 people.
If that happens, the suit would encompass most of Muscatine, specifically, people living — in Iowa — within a three-mile radius of the plant at 1600 Oregon St. who may have been injured by the plant’s emissions.
The Buzbee Law Firm of Houston is the lead firm for potential litigants, with support from The Larew Law Office in Iowa City and The Hope Law Firm in Des Moines. By Monday the attorneys had set up an office to handle inquiries from potential litigants in Pearl Plaza, 208 W. Second St., and established a website, www.muscatinepollutionlawsuit.com.
“I get pitched cases, and I probably turn down 99 percent of the cases that people try to get me involved in,” said Tony Buzbee of The Buzbee Law Firm. “They’re a huge financial commitment, as well as time and energy. But then they showed me the data, which speaks for itself. This is a very strong case, very compelling and persuasive, so I decided to get involved.”
According to the lawsuit, filed as “Laurie Freeman, et. al., v. Grain Processing Corporation” in the Iowa District Court for Muscatine County, GPC’s production processes emit harmful chemicals, coal pollution and vented volatile organic compounds. The lawsuit also alleges that recent scientific testing of the air in Muscatine confirms potential health risks, and that the pollutants are damaging real estate and personal property in the area.
In Iowa, damage lawsuits don’t specify damages, and this one is no exception.
“In the filing, we don’t describe in our petitions any specific dollar damages,” said Jim Larew, an attorney who represents CLAM. The lawsuit does ask for both special and punitive damages as well as “reasonable attorneys’ and experts’ fees and expenses.”
According to a press release issued by Powers MediaWorks LLC, a Texas-based public relations firm, the attorneys will seek class action status to include, potentially, 6,500 households within a three-mile radius of GPC’s plant at 1600 Oregon St.
Muscatine-based GPC announced plans in May 2011 to spend $100 million on technology and a new dryer house to reduce the company’s output of sulfur dioxide and small particle emissions.
A GPC spokeswoman said Monday afternoon that “GPC has not been served with the lawsuit and has not seen any details or really any information. We will not be able to comment until we are served with the lawsuit documents.”
One of the 11 named plaintiffs in the lawsuit is Kelcey Brackett, the brother of Clean Air Muscatine Executive Director Jessica Brackett.
“Clean Air Muscatine is not part of this lawsuit,” Brackett said, “although we are pleased that the 17,000 residents who live within three miles of GPC will have the opportunity to be part of this legal action. Those who have been harmed by the actions of GPC deserve to be compensated for that harm.”
The other plaintiffs named in the suit are Laurie Freeman, Joseph Preston, Sharon Mockmore, Eugene W. Mockmore, Beccy Boysel, Gary D. Boysel, Daryle Snyder, Linda L. Goreham, Gary R. Goreham and Bobbie Lynn Weatherman, all of Muscatine
Efforts to reach the plaintiffs for comment were either unsuccessful or were met with comments of “No comment.”
Larew said he met with Buzbee last month and convinced him “this may be a local story, but it’s a story with national implications.”
Buzbee, who’s represented Texas Gov. Rick Perry, said he’ll use a team for this case that he’s used in other lawsuits — “Ph.D. level chemists and scientists who have done some testing on the ground” in Muscatine.
“I don’t have any intention of interfering with jobs or the local economy,” Buzbee said, “but there’s something here that needs to be corrected, and that’s what I intend to do.”
Buzbee, who was in Muscatine Monday along with four other attorneys who work for his firm, said by telephone from his Houston office Monday afternoon that he expects “to spend a lot of time there.”
“That’s important to me and to the people there,” he said. “Legally this is one very strong case.”
“There is real, verified damage being done to people’s real and personal property,” Buzbee told The Associated Press. “Ask anyone who lives in the area who every morning has to clean their car because it’s covered in soot again. Go down there like I did [Sunday] night and just look at the smoke billowing out of the facility and where it lands. It barely goes above the stacks, moves to the right, crosses the road and starts to slowly permeate into the neighborhood. It’s pretty dramatic.”
Larew said he’s been “terribly inspired by the citizens of Muscatine who have come to the point where they say, ‘We need to push back in order to clean up the air so that the next generation can live and work in Muscatine.’
“We wanted to assemble the best possible team, and Tony may be the nation’s foremost litigator representing people injured by environmental harms.”
Larew described the financial arrangement as a plaintiffs’ contingency fee lawsuit, meaning that the attorneys will bear the up-front costs of litigation and will be paid only if their client wins. “We’ll be paid nothing if we lose,” he said.
He said he doesn’t know how many plaintiffs will come forward and has “no opinion” on any advantage to be gained by having the judge assign class-action status to the lawsuit.
“In some cases, that’s the most efficient way,” he said, “but ultimately it’s a decision for the court.”
Larew said he’s not worried that what could be a very large lawsuit will shut down the company’s operation.
“There is a world of demand for the kinds of products they make, but there is also an obligation to manufacture them without harming people,” he said. “The people I know wish for GPC’s success.”