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Is A SoyChlor Plant Killing Animals, People, And Children In Jefferson Iowa?
On October 28, 2005, more than 250 residents of Jefferson, Iowa, represented by attorneys from LaMarca & Landry, PC, filed a lawsuit against West Central Cooperative in the Iowa District Court for Greene County. Parties to this lawsuit include homeowners, business owners, and people who work at nearby workplaces, including MicroSoy, Electrolux, and American Concrete.
Causes of action include nuisance, negligence, trespass, res ipsa loquitur, and strict liability for conducting an unusually dangerous activity. The claims stem from numerous environmental and health changes that have occurred since West Central Cooperative’s Soy Chlor plant began operations on February 14, 2005. These problems stem essentially from the emissions of hydrogen chloride, hydrochloric acid and particulate matter at the Soy Chlor plant containing one or both of these chemicals. Soy Chlor is a patented dairy cattle feed supplement that combines hydrochloric acid with a soy product.
The suit also alleges violation of West Central Cooperative’s IDNR operating permit for that plant, as well as violations of hazardous chemical 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 properties within a mile of the plant, the lawsuit alleges. The emissions have also killed grass and other vegetation, wiped out wildlife, damaged windows and discolored surrounding structures and road rocks, the plaintiffs allege.
The plaintiffs allege the plant has exceeded legal limits for emissions of hydrogen chloride and “particulates,” 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 just like daylight, right out 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,” said Nile Ramsbottom, vice president of soy and food operations at Ralston-based West Central, but added that the company plans to increase the height of SoyChlor’s emissions tower to 94 feet on a larger scale. disperse emissions and dilute their presence in the soil. West Central also plans to install an additional scrubbing system, Ramsbottom said, adding that those combined steps would be more than enough to ensure the plant’s emissions meet legal limits.
The company has asked the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, which oversees emissions from manufacturing plants, to allow the changes.
Dave Phelps, who oversees the DNR division that oversees such permits, said the department was prepared to grant the company’s request, but also expects there to be a public comment period and public hearing on the issue this month. He also said recent tests showed the plant’s dust emission rate exceeded the limit allowed by state law.
George LaMarca, a Des Moines attorney representing the plaintiffs in the case, said a public hearing and opportunity for public input are good steps, but ones that should have been taken before the plant opened.
Ball, 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 soccer game, and an attending physician blamed SoyChlor emissions for health problems that first appeared after the plant opened.
Since his collapse, the teenager has been living with his maternal grandparents south of the city 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 he had absolutely no problem,” Ball said.
SoyChlor uses hazardous materials, including hydrogen chloride, to make a patented product that is added to the diet of dairy cows. Hydrogen chloride is a noxious gas that can be toxic to humans and animals.
When it mixes with moisture, it becomes hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive substance capable of eating away at motor vehicle finish, corroding glass and killing wildlife and vegetation — all of which have happened, residents say, in ” drop zone,” an area extending a mile or more in each direction from the plant. The gas, acid, and particles contaminated by the gas or acid are vented through a stack located atop a concrete tower at the north end of the facility.
“In Iowa, when you live in a community this size, you accept it because it’s agriculture,” said Jeff Ostendorf, a Jefferson rancher who works for MicroSoy Corp., a soy-based food ingredient company located across the street from SoyChlor. “This is different.”
Bonnie Burkhardt lives south of SoyChlor, across the street. One day last week, he paged through notebooks and three-ring binders in which he meticulously tracked communication about the controversy with public officials, company officials and others in the community.
A notebook describes the potentially harmful effects of the toxic substances used in SoyChlor, along with reports from doctors treating Burkhardt and others who say they suffered health problems this year.
Formerly vibrant children now sleep too much and run out of energy quickly, families say. Colton Conroy, a 15-year-old who pushed more than 6 feet tall, tired easily and began to lose weight, his mother said. Adults with respiratory conditions, including Norma Gross and Ron Lawton, said they had gotten better with medical treatments, but now say they have gotten worse.
Last year, Gross was doing well, despite her chronic lung disease. But after opening the SoyChlor, he quickly lost ground, finding it difficult to breathe. Her doctors at University Hospitals in Iowa City, where she was involved in a research project, urged her to step away, she said. But she is a permanent resident and she and her husband raised 10 children here. Gross doesn’t want to live anywhere else.
Also of concern to Gross and Burkhardt is the loss of wildlife. Gone are the roosting pigeons in the tall grain storage structures north of the SoyChlor plant, they said. Gone are the bluejays, cardinals, goldfinches and other birds that used to roost at the numerous feeders in Gross’s backyard. He hasn’t seen a bird in weeks.
“It was like all of a sudden there were no more birds, not even sparrows,” said Gross, who lives in a tidy trailer park about a mile from the plant.
In addition, spots have appeared on the finish of vehicles and on the sides of homes and other buildings, even on mailboxes.
Jefferson residents said West Central’s insurance company had hired a Florida company 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 the recipients had to sign a form releasing the co-op and its affiliates from further claims.
Burkhardt said she first noticed something was wrong when her skin burned while working in the flower garden. Finally, he led her inside, where she took a shower to stop the burning. That was last spring, after spending several months in Florida with her husband, Chuck.
At the same time, Arletta Tassler and her husband returned from a winter in Texas. Both developed a cough that lasted for months, they said. At times, Tasler said, she has coughed so hard she threw up.
Like Burkhardt, the Taslers had no idea about the cause.
Burkhardt and her friend Diane Conroy talked to neighbors and people who work in nearby businesses. Within a mile of Burkhardt’s home, they found dozens of people reporting similar symptoms. They had first noticed a strange smell, like the scent of a bag of empty beer cans left in the hot sun for a day, Conroy said.
Then came health problems. Then the points on vehicles and buildings. Then film on windows and windshields that scrubbing couldn’t remove. And some noticed that their glasses had become pitted.
The women searched the Internet for information about SoyChlor and the chemicals it used.
The more they learned, the more convinced they were that SoyChlor was the culprit.
“If you take it out on your side, if it has a seed, think what it does to your lungs,” said Tasler, who lives with her 49-year-old husband, Shorty, on a farm just east of the plant where they raised eight children.
Burkhardt, Conroy and others contacted the city’s chief of sanitation, the public health nurse and the editor of the local newspaper. They began contacting the government — environmental and safety regulators, Iowa’s US senators, even the White House.
Conroy and her husband, Jeb Ball, contacted their attorney in Des Moines. He referred them to George LaMarca, another Des Moines attorney. LaMarca knew how deadly hydrogen chloride could be. The gas had incapacitated some of the victims in Des Moines’ deadliest fire, which swept through the Younkers store in the Merle Hay Mall on Nov. 5, 1978. LaMarca represented the victims’ survivors in legal battles that lasted years and eventually resulted in an unknown settlement for the plaintiffs.
He has only five words for the cooperative: “We want the factory closed.”
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