KALAMAZOO, MI (From news reports) -- A major national packaging company is accused of failing to control noxious odors and dust around one of its Michigan paper mills in a new class action lawsuit.
Graphic Packaging International is named as a defendant in a complaint filed in U.S. District Court by a Detroit firm representing clients who live near the company's mill at 1500 N. Pitcher Street in Kalamazoo.
The filing names four lead plaintiffs living in the city's predominantly Black Northside neighborhood, who say dust and a persistent industrial stink from Graphic Packaging has invaded their homes and diminished their property values.
The lawsuit seeks damages in excess of $5,000.
"We've been contacted by more than 100 families already," said Steve Liddle, partner at the Liddle & Dubin firm, which began canvassing for clients in Kalamazoo this summer.
The 19-page complaint quotes multiple Kalamazoo residents, some of whom allege the smell "burns" their eyes, makes them cough and forces them to stay indoors.
The smell is "unusually frequent," the filing says.
Brandi Crawford-Johnson lives on N. Church Street and calls the smell "unbearable" in the filing. "I can't enjoy my yard because the odor causes me to stay indoors with air purifiers."
"The fallout is like shredded paper falling and the odor is so horrible we can't enjoy our backyard for parties or bbq's," residents Nayakia and Dion Bates say in the filing.
The filing cites multiple noxious odor violations by Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) regulators, who've cited Graphic Packaging eight times in the past decade for odors and forced the company to study the issue this summer.
Regulators have also cited the company for fallout dusting.
The violations were revealed by an investigation in August, which found that an open-air industrial wastewater clarifier along the Kalamazoo River near Paterson Street was releasing odorous hydrogen sulfide (H2S) gas with peaks "well above the odor threshold," according to a June report by the Jones & Henry engineering firm.
The report, prepared for the city public works department, identifies oversized piping between Graphic Packaging and the city wastewater plant as problematic because turbulent mixing helps propel gas up through manhole covers.
Industrial odors along Riverview Drive north of Gull Road have long been associated with the city wastewater plant, which recently installed $15 million worth of odor-related improvements that include a new odor tracking system.
The Envirosuite system at the wastewater plant has recorded regular hydrogen sulfide readings at or above the minimum risk level (MRL) of 0.02 parts-per-million (ppm) for intermediate exposure by inhalation set by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), the toxicology arm of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hydrogen sulfide exposure can harm a person's nervous, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems, depending on dosage levels. Lower exposure is less severe, according to the ATSDR.
The lawsuit comes as city leaders are weighing a major tax break for Graphic Packaging, which is asking for an abatement worth about $20 million on a $600 million expansion at its Kalamazoo mill. The company is attempting to strengthen its position in the recycled paperboard market and received a similar tax break last year on a Brownfield project.
The City Commission tabled approval of Graphic's request in August and plans to resume consideration on Sept. 21. Commissioners asked for a presentation by a city odor task force comprised mostly of city staff and company representatives.
Jeff Chamberlain, deputy city manager, said "city staff are compiling the information which commissioners requested. It will be provided for that meeting."
Graphic Packaging communication manager Sue Appleyard wrote that the company is working with city and state officials to address odors.
"We have not yet been served with this lawsuit and typically do not comment on pending litigation," she wrote. "We do plan to continue to work with neighbors and the city to address odor concerns. Graphic Packaging is firmly invested in the community, and we will continue to do our part to listen to and address concerns. We will also take whatever steps are appropriate based on the results of ongoing odor investigations."
If a judge certifies a plaintiff class in the case, Liddle said it could number in the thousands based on the amount of people living within a mile-and-a-half of the Kalamazoo mill.
The firm did not file against the city of Kalamazoo due to "issues of government immunity that are pretty strong in the state of Michigan," he said.
Liddle & Dubin is also representing class action litigants suing 3M and Georgia-Pacific in federal court following the 2018 discovery of high levels of toxic PFAS chemicals in the nearby city of Parchment municipal drinking water supply.
Liddle said that case continues to move through discovery.