On October 28, 2005, over 250 residents of Jefferson, Iowa, represented by attorneys from LaMarca & Landry, P.C., filed suit against West Central Cooperative in the Iowa District Court for Greene County. The parties to this lawsuit include homeowners, business owners and persons who work at nearby places of employment, such as MicroSoy, Electrolux and American Concrete.
The causes of action include nuisance, negligence, trespass, res ipsa loquitur, and strict liability for carrying on an abnormally dangerous activity. The claims stem from numerous environmental and health changes which have occurred since West Central Cooperative’s Jefferson, Iowa Soy Chlor plant began its operations on February 14, 2005. These problems stem essentially from the Soy Chlor’s plant emission of hydrogen chloride, hydrochloric acid and particulate matter containing one or both of these chemicals. Soy Chlor is a patented dairy cattle feed supplement which combines hydrochloric acid with soy product.
The lawsuit also alleges violation of West Central Cooperative’s IDNR operating permit for this plant, as well as violations of the hazardous chemical risk law and other environmental laws and applicable standards of care.
West Central opened the business – SoyChlor – in February. Since then, emissions from the plant have corroded metal buildings and other property within a mile of the plant, the lawsuit alleges. Emissions also have killed grass and other vegetation, eliminated wildlife, ruined windows and discolored surrounding structures and roadway rock, plaintiffs contend.
The plaintiffs claim that the plant has exceeded legal limits for emissions of both hydrogen chloride and “particulate matter,” or dust. When combined with moisture, the chemical turns into hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive substance known to be toxic to humans and animals.
“It’s plain as day, right from my front window,” said Jeb Ball , owner of a used car business west of the SoyChlor plant on Jefferson’s north side. “I have to look at it every day.”
“We think we’re in compliance now,” Nile Ramsbottom , vice president for soy and nutrition operations at Ralston-based West Central said, but he added that the company plans to increase the height of SoyChlor’s emissions tower to 94 feet to more widely disperse emissions and to dilute their presence on the ground. West Central also plans to install an additional scrubbing system, Ramsbottom said, adding that those combined steps would be more than enough to ensure that plant emissions meet legal limits .
The company has asked the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which oversees manufacturing plant emissions, to allow the changes.
Dave Phelps , who supervises the DNR section that oversees such permits, said the department was prepared to grant the company’s request, but he also expects there to be a public comment period and public hearing about the matter this month . He also said recent testing showed the plant’s dust emission rate exceeded the limit allowed by state law.
George LaMarca, a Des Moines lawyer representing plaintiffs in the case, said a public hearing and the opportunity for public input are good steps, but ones that should have been taken before the plant was opened.
Ball, the owner of the used car business, said Monday that his son, Colton Conroy , 15, has been sickened by SoyChlor emissions. A month ago, the high school sophomore collapsed at a football game, and a treating physician blamed SoyChlor emissions for health problems that first emerged after the plant opened.
Since his collapse, the teenager has lived with his maternal grandparents, south of town, and his symptoms have subsided, said Ball and his wife, Diane Conroy.
“He could run track and play football and everything a year ago, and had no problems whatsoever,” Ball said.
SoyChlor uses hazardous materials, including hydrogen chloride, to make a patented product added to feed for dairy cows. Hydrogen chloride is a noxious gas that can be toxic to humans and animals.
When mixed with moisture, it becomes hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive substance capable of eating through motor vehicle finish, pitting glass, and killing wildlife and vegetation — all of which have occurred, residents say, in the “fallout zone,” an area extending a mile or more in every direction from the plant. The gas, the acid and particulate matter tainted by the gas or acid are emitted through a stack that sits atop a concrete tower at the north end of the plant.
“In Iowa, when you live in a community this size, you accept it because it’s agriculture,” said Jeff Ostendorf, a Jefferson livestock producer who works at MicroSoy Corp., a soy-based food ingredient manufacturer located across the street from SoyChlor. “This is different.”
Bonnie Burkhardt lives south of SoyChlor, across the street. One day last week, she paged through notebooks and three-ring binders in which she has kept meticulous track of communication about the dispute with public officials, company officials and others in the community.
One notebook detailed the potentially harmful effects of the toxic substances used by SoyChlor, along with reports from medical doctors treating Burkhardt and others who say they have suffered health setbacks this year.
Formerly vibrant children now sleep way too much and run low on energy quickly, families say. Colton Conroy, a 15-year-old pushing past 6 feet tall, got winded easily and began to lose weight, his mother said. Adults with respiratory ailments, including Norma Gross and Ron Lawton, said they had been improving with the help of medical treatments, but now say they have gotten worse.
Last year, Gross was doing well, despite her chronic lung disease. But after SoyChlor opened, she lost ground quickly, struggling to breathe. Her physicians at University Hospitals in Iowa City, where she has been participating in a research project, urged her to move away, she said. But she is a lifelong resident, and she and her husband raised 10 children here. Gross doesn’t want to live anywhere else.
Also alarming to Gross and Burkhardt is the loss of wildlife. Gone are the pigeons that used to sit atop tall grain storage structures north of the SoyChlor plant, they said. Gone are the bluejays, cardinals, goldfinches and other birds that used to perch on the numerous feeders in Gross’ backyard. She has not seen a bird for weeks.
“It was like all of a sudden there weren’t any birds anymore, not even sparrows,” said Gross, who lives in a tidy trailer park within a mile of the plant.
In addition, spots have surfaced on the finish of vehicles and on the siding of homes and other buildings, even on mailboxes.
Jefferson residents said West Central’s insurer had hired a Florida firm to clean vehicles affected by the emissions. They also said the insurer had offered checks of up to several hundred dollars to residents claiming property damage, although recipients were required to sign a form releasing the co-op and its affiliates from further claims.
Burkhardt said she first noticed that something was wrong when her skin would burn while she worked in the flower garden. Eventually, it drove her indoors, where she would shower to make the burning stop. That was last spring, after she spent several months in Florida with her husband, Chuck.
At the same time, Arletta Tasler and her husband returned from a winter in Texas. They both developed coughs that have lasted for months, they said. At times, Tasler said, she has coughed so hard that she has vomited.
Like Burkhardt, the Taslers had no clue about the cause.
Burkhardt and her friend Diane Conroy talked to neighbors and people working at nearby businesses. Within a mile of Burkhardt’s home, they found dozens of people reporting similar symptoms. They had noticed a strange odor first, like the scent from a bag of empty beer cans left in the hot sun for a day, Conroy said.
Then came health problems. Then the spots on vehicles and on buildings. Then filminess on windows and windshields that scrubbing could not remove. And some noticed that their eyeglasses had become pitted.
The women searched the Internet for information about SoyChlor and the chemicals it used.
The more they learned, the more they became convinced that the culprit was SoyChlor.
“If you get this on your siding, if it’s pitted, think what it’s doing to your lungs,” said Tasler, who lives with her husband of 49 years, Shorty, on a farmstead directly east of the plant where they raised eight children.
Burkhardt, Conroy and others contacted the head of city sanitation, the public health nurse and the local newspaper editor. They began contacting the government — environmental and safety regulators, Iowa’s U.S. senators, even the White House.
Conroy and her husband, Jeb Ball, contacted their lawyer in Des Moines. He referred them to George LaMarca, another Des Moines lawyer. LaMarca knew just how deadly hydrogen chloride could be. The gas had incapacitated some of the victims in Des Moines’ deadliest fire ever, which swept the Younkers store at Merle Hay Mall on Nov. 5, 1978. LaMarca represented victims’ survivors in litigation that lasted for years and, ultimately, resulted in an undisclosed settlement for the plaintiffs.
He has just five words for the co-op: “We want the plant closed.”