A federal judge has given the OK for most downtown West Point residents to sue the West Point paper mill as a group rather than individually over dust they say negatively affects their lives.
On April 17, John A. Gibney Jr., U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, granted West Point residents’ requests to sue the mill’s parent company and one of its vendors as a group.
“As anyone who has driven by a paper mill might imagine,” Gibney wrote in the order, “the WestRock paper mill is not a model neighbor.”
The lawsuit stems from wood dust that blows from a WestRock owned property on 14th Street onto nearby land. An Arkansas-based company, West Point Chips, takes wood and grinds it into chips for the WestRock mill’s production of containerboard at the 14th Street property, according to the filings.
The homeowners involved in the suit have asked for a jury trial and no less than $25,000 each in damages, as well as punitive damages and legal fees in the case.
Everyone who owned or rented property in West Point within a half mile of 200 14th St. on Dec. 15, 2017 is eligible to be a party to the case and receive money in the settlement, according to the court order.
Property owners and renters don’t have to do anything to join the lawsuit, according to Gary Mason an attorney for Whitfield Bryson and Mason, a Washington, D.C., based law firm.
"If they do nothing, they're in the class,” Mason said. “We hope to go to trial later in the year to establish liability. If individuals want to come forward and prove their damage case, they can do so.”
Property owners and renters only need to prove that the extra particulate matter negatively affected the use and enjoyment of their property, Mason said.
For some who have joined the lawsuit, it’s as simple as keeping their windows closed in their homes and cars out of fear of allowing the dust inside, the filings said.
The lawsuit was originally filed in December 2017, and lawyers for all parties have filed dozens of memorandums, motions and answers in the intervening 18 months.
WestRock and West Point Chips have denied the dust has been a problem, although court filings in the case indicate the mill took measures to solve the problem of dust from the piles before the lawsuit was filed.
As early as December 2015, according to one exhibit in the case, the mill began to take corrective action to reduce “fugitive dust.” In the following six months, the mill looked to fix the wood chipper machines, wet the chip piles and spray any wood with a type of foam that would weigh down any dust and make it less likely to blow off the property, court documents state.
“We’re hopeful we can resolve this with them,” WestRock spokesman John Pensec said in January 2018. WestRock’s attorneys did not return multiple requests for comment.
West Point Town Council approved a special-use permit for a $50 million upgrade to the mill’s wood chip storage and transfer facilities in May 2017, according to Tidewater Review archives.
Mill officials said in the court filings that they expected the construction to reduce the amount of “fugitive dust” from the property.
Both sides in the case have been ordered to try and settle the dispute out of court, although those conferences have been fruitless so far, according to court filings.
In April, Gibney certified the class of people and businesses could join the lawsuit, including about 200 residential properties. That means the suit could net residents at least $5 million if all joined it, although arguments over Gibney’s decision will continue on May 23 in federal court in Richmond.
“Things will start to move a lot faster,” Mason said about Gibney’s decision to certify the class for the lawsuit.
On Monday, Gibney ordered all parties to narrow their areas of disagreement on proposals to inform the public about the lawsuit by Friday, according to a court order.
Mason said he expects a trial date to be set in the case after a June hearing after a previous trial date was vacated in April.
Roberts can be reached at 757-604-1329, by email at email@example.com and on Twitter @SPRobertsJr.