Residents near the Georgia-Pacific Savannah River Mill have been granted the ability to file a class action lawsuit against the mill for damages from the mill’s emissions.
The original plaintiffs, Aaron and Kirbi Ratner and David and Kathy McDonald, assert that hydrogen sulfide gas released from the mill’s waste has damaged property values. The “noxious smell, toxicity and corrosive nature of this chemical” present questions of fact common to the class, decreed Ogeechee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge William Woodrum.
The plaintiffs claim the mill’s emissions have corroded door knobs, galvanized metal and air conditioners at their homes and have prevented them from selling their homes. They also claim the mill’s fumes have led to choking, coughing, headaches, vomiting, breathing difficulties, burning of nasal passages and a temporary loss of the sense of smell.
Georgia-Pacific officials are looking over their course of action.
“We’re evaluating it and the impact it will have,” said Carrie Thompson, Savannah River Mill community affairs manager.
The company also is evaluating an appeal to the ruling.
“Judge Woodrum’s order for class certification is a victory for anyone who believes property rights are sacred,” said Ben Perkins, the attorney who argued for class action on behalf of the Ratners and McDonalds, “and that no matter how powerful, no company should be permitted to damage the property of another without first paying just compensation. Orders such as this place major polluters like Georgia-Pacific and King America on notice that they must be responsible corporate citizens.”
Perkins, joined by co-counsel Tim Roberts of Oliver Maner in Savannah and John Bell of Bell and Brigham in Augusta, argued that a class-action suit would prevent a drain of the judicial system’s resources and time. Plaintiffs claim that more than 30 home air conditioning units, some less than two years old, have failed because of the plant’s pollution.
In the original suit, filed in January, the Ratners and McDonalds are seeking past, present and future general, special and nominal damages, along with recovery of attorney and litigation fees. They also are seeking punitive damages to deter the company “from further like wrongful conduct.”
Thompson said Georgia-Pacific is in the process of closing the three sludge fields that may be responsible for the odor. Georgia-Pacific has plans to cover its waste, and according to the company, materials for the closure cover system have been delivered. Installation of the gas collection system also has begun.
A pilot beneficial reuse project has been approved and is scheduled to be in operation before fall.
“We have been an important part of the community for more than 25 years,” she said, “and we’re going to continue to work hard to be a good neighbor.”
The potential class includes residents living east of Rincon-Stillwell Road, west of a line along Fort Howard Road between the intersection of Fort Howard and Seckinger Ford Road and south of the rail line that goes into the mill, south of the rail line between Fort Howard and Seckinger Ford roads and north of a line from Bunyan Kessler Road beginning at Rincon-Stillwell Road and running to the intersection of Fort Howard and Seckinger Ford.
Other common questions for the class members involve the mill’s safety program, the materials used in its landfill and sludge fields, the cause and effects of toxic releases from the mill and the mill’s precautions to prevent releases into the environment.
Attorneys for Georgia-Pacific argued that property owners are affected in different ways and degrees, meaning there should be numerous individual determinations of harm. Judge Woodrum held that the amount of damages among class members does not stand in the way of a class being established. The judge said the same actions of the mill are alleged to have caused harm and the same types of damages are sought for each class member.
“Had G-P prevailed on the argument that the claims should be raised in as many as 116 lawsuits, the only beneficiaries would have been the lawyers hired to work on those separate cases,” Perkins said. “Fortunately, Judge Woodrum recognizes that the property rights of individual landowners in Effingham County are entitled to protection.”
Georgia-Pacific has replaced air conditioner units repaired or replaced, but since the hearing on the class-action certification, another three air conditioners at homes in the class area have failed. But the mill has not accepted responsibility for other damages, plaintiffs charge.
Georgia-Pacific attorneys also attempted to exclude testimony from two experts in the air conditioner corrosion and failure analysis. They said they found abnormal and premature corrosion and failure of air conditioners within several miles of the mill’s sludge fields but did not find such problems in areas farther area from the mill.