Class-action suit against rendering plant nearly settled

Residents of East Dublin have reached a preliminary settlement in a class-action lawsuit against a controversial animal rendering plant.

The suit, filed in 2003, alleged that Griffin Industries’ negligent operation of its Laurens County plant caused odors that reduced the property values of those who lived within two miles. Including some former residents, the class contains about 2,000 people, the residents’ attorney, Steven Rosenwasser, said in an e-mail.

The Griffin plant, which cooks animal fats into oils used in various products, was the subject of a federal environmental prosecution earlier this decade. Later, it filed its own suit against state and local politicians it claimed were trying to shut down the plant.

In the class-action settlement reached in March, Griffin admits no wrongdoing, but it agreed to pay $100,000 a year for three years, or $300,000 by the beginning of 2012, to control odors at the East Dublin facility. One of the measures it will take is to install a synthetic cover over one of its waste treatment lagoons.

Larry Kight, one of the four residents who represents the entire class of plaintiffs in the lawsuit, said he thinks this was the most important concession.

Rosenwasser stated in an e-mail: “It is our expectation that the reduction in odors will cause an increase in property values; as a result, this settlement should translate into real dollars for members of the class.”

When asked whether Griffin believed the cover would reduce odors, Griffin’s director of legal affairs, Chris Griffin, responded in an e-mail that “Griffin believes that the addition of a synthetic cover to our anaerobic lagoon will further enhance our wastewater treatment process while continuing Griffin’s commitment to environmental stewardship.”

East Dublin Mayor George Gornto, who said he would probably have qualified as a member of the class, expressed confidence that the settlement will decrease odors from Griffin. He said it will provide more immediate relief for East Dublin residents than would continuing a court battle for years.

Gornto, once a vocal critic of Griffin, was among local and state elected officials the company sued several years ago in a case he said was settled last year with no conditions or money changing hands.

He says this additional settlement enables the city and the company to move forward to achieve mutual goals of supporting viable business while preventing unwanted odors.

Kentucky-based Griffin Industries agrees in the settlement to pay up to $2,000 each to four residents who represented the class in the lawsuit: Kight, Cynthia Green, Ann Fennell and Joyce Renfroe.

Griffin also agrees that from 2010 through 2012 the company will provide Rosenwasser with information about the plant’s operations, including copies of quarterly environmental testing results required by the state; information about any violations of the company’s environmental or agricultural permits and what steps Griffin is taking to correct problems; copies of the company’s odor logs; and instances when the company receives more than three odor complaints on the same day.

Griffin’s recent environmental compliance record has been good. Kevin Chambers, communications director of the Georgia Environmental Protection Division, said Griffin has not violated its state air or wastewater permits in the past five years.

For its operation of a system that sprays the plant’s wastewater onto a field, the company won 2007 Plant of the Year from the Georgia Association of Water Professionals, according to the association’s communications director, Bryan Wagoner.

Griffin also agreed as part of the settlement to give $10,000 a year for three years to the East Dublin Fire Department.

Kight said he and the other plaintiffs suggested this donation, which will probably go toward the construction of a new fire department, because they thought it would help the largest number of East Dublin residents.

“All in all, I’m fairly happy” with the settlement,” Kight said. “I don’t think we were in a position to get them to stop the odors completely. ... Our lawyers felt this was the very best we were going to be able to get.”

Griffin had a pending motion to decertify the case as a class-action suit.

Chris Griffin wrote in an e-mail that, “Griffin feels that this is a fair settlement that will allow Griffin to continue to build upon the good relationships it has worked hard to establish with the cities of Dublin and East Dublin and their respective residents while continuing to make long-term investments in the community.”

Kight said that since the suit was filed, the plant has smelled bad less frequently.

“But East Dublin still has a stigma, and that’s the biggest thing I think we’ll never get over,” Kight said. “I’m very pleased and proud of what we were able to accomplish. … Am I totally satisfied? No.”

He said he would like Griffin to have admitted that the plant smells and apologized for the way it operated in the past.

The plant has been controversial for most of the last decade.

In 2003, the EPA filed federal criminal charges against Griffin, alleging illegal water pollution and a conspiracy to violate the Clean Water Act. Many of the allegations were related to how the company managed its wastewater spray field.

A week before the trial, Griffin pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a $50,000 fine, and the remaining charges were dropped. The U.S. attorney’s office never explained why.

Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, The Telegraph in 2004 requested the EPA’s documents related to the investigation and prosecution of the case. The law requires a response within 20 business days.

Griffin filed suit against the EPA to prevent the release of the documents, and the case spent years in a Kentucky court before a ruling in Griffin’s favor. For the first time this month, the EPA has begun releasing some documents in response to The Telegraph’s request.

Rosenwasser had also requested many of the same documents, but that request was withdrawn as a result of the court settlement.

The settlement has received preliminary approval from Fulton County Superior Court, Rosenwasser stated in an e-mail. But it will not be finalized until the members of the class are notified and given an opportunity to comment or object.

To contact writer S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.