KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Residents of Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood have filed a lawsuit against a slew of government agencies and officials and business executives, claiming air pollution from a cardboard packaging plant in the area caused their health problems and that their complaints have been ignored because they are Black.
“The community has been going through this for a very long time. This has been decades and decades and decades leading up to this point,” the residents’ attorney John R. Beason III told News 8. “(These plaintiffs) have been gaslighted for a very long time. They’ve been told what they’re suffering, their experiences, aren’t valid and they haven’t really been going through what they feel like they’ve been going through. So this is their opportunity to put their side of the story forward.”
The plant is question in the Graphic Packaging International facility on North Pitcher Street north of East Paterson Street. Residents have complained about the odor coming from the plant for years. The state has been monitoring GPI for more than a decade and the plant has been served with several odor violation notices. In February, GPI was fined more than $100,000 and given a compliance plan to reduce the odor problems. Last month, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services agreed the odors have caused health problems like headaches, nausea and eye irritation.
“The community has been going through this for a very long time. This has been decades and decades and decades leading up to this point,” Beason said. “(These plaintiffs) have been gaslighted for a very long time. They’ve been told what they’re suffering, their experiences, aren’t valid and they haven’t really been going through what they feel like they’ve been going through. So this is their opportunity to put their side of the story forward.”
The federal lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges GPI violated the Clean Air Act and other environmental laws and argues the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as state and local leaders, failed to properly address the problem. It claims that led to “wrongful deaths, irreparable bodily harm, assaults, batteries, severe emotional distress, and regular nuisances.”
It specifically cites the 2015 death of Michael Chandler of cancer and the 2017 death of 17-year-old Laprace Stegall of an asthma attack.
“(Stegall’s) mother said that she smelled a strong smell of peppermint (the day of the asthma attack), which is usually affiliated with different chemicals and inks used in printing papers,” Beason said. “Mr. Chandler spent a lot of his time in Verburg Park, one of the parks in Kalamazoo near the Kalamazoo River walking trail, and he was just one of the community members who enjoyed being outside, enjoyed taking advantage of … public spaces that happen to be filled with chemicals that the community wasn’t aware of.”
The lawsuit also claims discrimination, citing historical redlining and zoning decisions that allowed plants to be built in the majority Black community. It says the government now hasn’t done enough to protect neighbors. It blames federal and state politicians and the city for supporting GPI’s growth and granting it air pollution exemptions and tax breaks.
“This complaint is brought on behalf of approximately eight thousand people, all of whom have suffered injuries as a consequence of an on-going conspiracy operating within a habitual custom of racial animus established by the Federal government of the United States of America. The Plaintiffs assert that these violations of their unalienable constitutional rights were caused by the Defendants’ repugnant, deliberate misconduct, neglect of duty, and indifference to definite injuries of Black American citizens,” the suit reads in part.
It says leaders didn’t react appropriately even though chemicals including hydrogen sulfide, formaldehyde and freon have been found in the Northside neighborhood. Beason said it seemed like leaders and the company were more worried about money than people.
The suit claims that people who live near plants like GPI have “suffered heightened levels of respiratory diseases, kidney diseases, cancers, birth defects, infant deaths, and other health disparities, leading to a fourteen year life expectancy gap between residents living in the disparately zoned neighborhoods of Kalamazoo.” It also tied an increase in birth defects in the 2000s in Kalamazoo County to GPI’s “increased toxic and hazardous emissions.”
The lawsuit names more than 40 plaintiffs who live in the area and 21 defendants, including GPI and leaders; the federal government and the regional EPA director; the state of Michigan, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the state health department, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy director; and the city of Kalamazoo, its current and former mayor and its city manager.
The plaintiffs argued their rights to equal protection and due process have been violated. They also said their right to practice their religion freely has been impeded upon because they must avoid their churches near the plant to say away from the odor.
In a Wednesday statement, GPI said it was reviewing the lawsuit but would not comment specifically on litigation. It added that it worked hard to be a good neighbor in Kalamazoo and was proud of its work.
“We are currently reviewing the lawsuit and we will not comment on pending litigation outside of court. As a general matter, we will defend ourselves against any false and misleading claims. We are proud of our work and our record in Kalamazoo and take very seriously our responsibility as a good neighbor, community partner and employer to 750 people at our Kalamazoo mill.
“We have invested millions of dollars in facility improvements and monitoring to address environmental concerns, and we will continue to build on those enhancements alongside city leaders and state and federal regulators to promote the health and well-being of our neighbors in Kalamazoo. For more information about our ongoing efforts, please visit KalamazooRecycles.com.”Graphic Packaging International
The city of Kalamazoo also told News 8 that it does not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit seeks damages totaling $600 million, plus hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. It also asks the court to order GPI to close or decrease production in the interest of public health, though Beason said the real goal is the truth and creation of a healthy environment.
“The goal is to get transparency, first and foremost, and to get the chemicals down and to get some type of compensation for what the people have gone through,” Beason said. “And also just to get the true story and the real facts on the table, because right now, the people feel like they don’t really know what’s what they’ve been going through and they haven’t gotten the truth.”