The mouth of the Saint Joseph River forms at the polluted waters of Lake Michigan, about 50 miles northwest of Elkhart, Ind. The "Saint Joe," as locals call it, meanders south before taking a sharp left in South Bend toward Elkhart. The Pennsylvania Amish navigated this route when they first arrived in Northern Indiana in 1841.
Most of the Potawatomi Indians had already been displaced by the time they got there. Like the pioneers before them, waves of new, mid-century settlers set about clearing the abundant timberlands.
Travelling upstream, the river forms oxbow lakes, rills, channels and islands as it approaches Elkhart, then narrows again as it heads into town. One island at the city's center forms into the shape of an Elk's heart. The deep water of the old river swirls and eddies along its banks.
Old U.S. Highway 33 hugs the river's south bank as it leaves South Bend, and follows it all the way to Elkhart, where it first traverses the blue-collar suburbs of Baugo Township. Industrial sprawl flanks the highway throughout Baugo— factories, business parks, truck rentals and scrap yards.
Tucked between the sprawl and the St. Joe is a modest, tree-lined neighborhood. The residents are mostly working-class families and older people who have lived there for decades. The result of shortsighted, outdated zoning ordinances, the backyards of many of these houses butt up against industrial yards. Lines of trees only somewhat block the sights, sounds and smells.
Along the north side of Old U.S. 33 also sits VIM Recycling.
For over a decade, the solid waste recycling company has polluted its surrounding neighborhood with little to no regard for the law. For last few years, however, Kim Ferraro, one of the state's leading public interest environmental lawyers, has fought VIM and a sea of red tape to hold VIM accountable in court. When I first visited Baugo Township to meet Kim and her clients in the summer of 2010, things were moving forward, but there was still a long way to go.
My first impression of VIM Recycling was that it was the kind of place you smelled before you saw. The pervasive stench was reminiscent of a permanent marker with the cap removed.
That much was expected. I was there because of VIM's troubled history. The company processes wood waste and other materials by grinding it up, packaging it, and selling it as new products like mulch, topsoil, wood fuel and animal bedding. On its expansive property sat towering piles of waste like simmering volcanoes, releasing steam and airborne particulates from the heat generated by the decomposition of the wood, much of it chemically treated. (One pile is disaffectionately known to its neighbors as "Mount VIM.")
Just a few years earlier, in June 2007, one of those mountains erupted. It was the second of two major fires at the facility. According to local reports, the blaze raged through the night and choked the air of the adjacent neighborhood with thick black smoke, burning for days. It took firefighters from more than 30 departments, siphoning 8-10 million gallons of water from the local well, to put out the fire, creating water shortages and forcing firefighters to draw water from the St. Joe. One VIM employee was burned to death in the blaze. Another was seriously injured.
It was only one incident in a long history of problems VIM had created for the local residents over the years. When the piles weren't ablaze, they smoldered, emitting noxious fumes. Chemicals leached into the ground. Meanwhile, VIM regularly ground its toxic woodpiles outdoors, creating a thick haze of dangerous particulates, which studies show was likely to contain bacteria and cancer-causing chemicals like formaldehyde.
Neighbors complained of nosebleeds, which disappeared whenever they left the area for a while. They reported breathing problems, headaches, new and unexplained skin irritations. Furnace filters were caked in red dust; lawns and cars were coated with the stuff. The water in bird baths was dyed reddish or yellow in color. Parents told elected officials their asthmatic children suffered attacks when they played outside. The smell alone made adults and children vomit.
Starting in 2000, VIM's Elkhart facility was cited multiple times for violating a litany of state and federal environmental regulations. Censure billowed forth from the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Meanwhile, fines were paltry to non-existent — when they weren't mired in litigation. Operations were never shut down entirely. When so compelled, VIM sometimes played nice by clearing away portions of the huge piles of treated wood, the kind that catch fire. Other times, it didn't.
When the spotlight wandered elsewhere, VIM always got back to business as usual. And the piles would always begin mounting anew.
The human cost
Robert Pedzinski, a retired member of the Baugo Township Fire Department, has lived in the neighborhood next to VIM since 1997. When Robert moved in, there was no VIM in Elkhart. He understands the before and after.
A little over two years later, in 2000, VIM began its grinding operations at the Elkhart facility. Robert began suffering bronchitis and sinus related problems almost right away. He was forced to take time off work for his health. In 2007, he developed a skin rash, and about a year later, underwent $4,500 sinus surgery.
Throughout the next year or so, he suffered major headaches. He went into the hospital multiple times for CAT scans before doctors determined the headaches were due to a sinus infection he couldn't get rid of.
His wife, Robin, a paraprofessional for Elkhart Community Schools who works with special ed students, has lived in the neighborhood since 1985.
"When Rob was going through this, you know, obviously I'm concerned because he's constantly sick, he's constantly losing time off of work," she said. Doctors wouldn't attribute the cause to VIM directly, but they raised a few issues, she said.
"I asked the doctor specifically, I said, 'I know you probably don't want to name one source, but could this be attributed to VIM?'" she recounted. "And he said, 'Let's be realistic here. You have bacteria, you have fungus, and all of this type of thing in the air. Do you really feel it's just staying there at VIM?'"
Many other neighbors have expressed similar complaints — to me and on record at numerous hearings with IDEM and elected county officials. The raw stench of chemicals and decomposition, some say, has been enough to make them physically ill. Friends and family have either stopped coming to the neighborhood or stopped being invited.
Carmine Greene moved back into the area after a decade in Chicago a little over three years ago. She said she had always wanted to own a house by the St. Joe. She cried all night the first night she and her husband moved in. The smell was unbearable.
Greene had no idea about VIM. Her realtor had neglected to tell her, and has since moved away from the area. Greene always took a county road to her home, and had never noticed the VIM operation.On her way to work one morning, she took a detour along Old 33.
"I couldn't believe it because these huge piles were all smoldering," she said. "They were just, like, on fire. And it was just unbelievable to me that all this stuff was going on out in the open."
When I spoke to her last year, she told me a strange lump had developed in front of her ear the previous December. It constantly leaked a strange, infected fluid.
When the wind blew in the right direction, she went outside. When it didn't, she stayed in. The smell was better indoors then. But only because of the thousands of dollars she and her husband spent on new doors and windows.
By the fireplace and in the garage there was still the smell.