IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — In a major environmental case, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled Friday that residents can bring a nuisance lawsuit against a Muscatine manufacturer accused of routinely blanketing their properties with soot and chemicals.
The court reinstated the class-action lawsuit against Grain Processing Corp., which operates a plant that turns corn kernels into products ranging from corn syrup to ethyl alcohol. The plaintiffs' claims of nuisance, negligence and trespass are not barred by the federal Clean Air Act or state rules governing air emissions, Justice Brent Appel wrote in a 6-0 decision that was applauded by environmentalists but criticized by business interests.
A regional economic force, the company buys $400 million in corn from farmers annually and is one of the area's largest employers.
But Muscatine residents have complained for years that it spews harmful chemicals into the environment that get blown onto their homes, yards and cars. The lawsuit, filed on behalf of up to 17,000 residents who live within a 3-mile radius of the plant, contends the pollution undermines their ability to enjoy their property and causes metals in everything from swing sets to air conditioning systems to corrode.
The company and a coalition of business groups had urged the court to dismiss the case, saying the regulation of air pollution should be left to state and federal agencies and not judges on a case-by-case basis. But the plaintiffs, environmental groups and advocates for private property rights had asked the court to allow the lawsuit to proceed.
"The important thing is that it protects regular folks' remedies when they are impacted by environmental pollution," Joshua Mandelbaum, an attorney with the Environmental Law & Policy Center in Des Moines, said of Friday's ruling.
But Richard Faulk, a Washington D.C. attorney who represented the National Association of Manufacturers and other business groups, said the decision means that corporations can be sued for pollution even when they are operating in compliance with state and federal air permits. "It's a very troubling problem for companies," he said.
Judge Mark Smith dismissed the case before trial last year. He said that even if half of the plaintiffs' claims about the company's practices were true, "there has been blatant disregard for the environment and the community of Muscatine." But he said that enforcement of the Clean Air Act and state regulations was the proper way to remedy such problems.
"When an individual's rights to seek damages for economic or physical harm conflict with the economic well-being of a local employer, those rights must be carefully weighed and reconciled through political compromises achieved by the legislative and rule-making processes," he wrote.
The business groups argued that courts don't have the expertise to decide complicated scientific questions, and those should be left to regulators and lawmakers. Having clear state and federal rules allows businesses to make plans and investments without worrying about the "uncertain, unpredictable and potentially unbearable liabilities" that may arise from private lawsuits, they wrote in a friend-of-the-court brief.
But in Friday's ruling, Appel said the regulations serve a different purpose than a private lawsuit for an individual's injury.
"The nuisance and common law actions in this case are based on specific harms to the use and enjoyment of real property that are different from the public interest generally in controlling air pollution," he wrote.
Company spokeswoman Janet Sichterman said it was disappointed in the decision but confident it would prevail on the merits of the case.
The company paid a $1.5 million fine in March to settle a lawsuit brought by Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller over alleged air pollution violations. The company will convert its coal-fired boilers to run on natural gas by next year, and is spending $100 million to build a new dryer house to reduce emissions. The company says those changes should eliminate the smoke, odor and haze coming from the plant.