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Neighbors score first win in paper mill lawsuit

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As the first of 15 lawsuits from Effingham residents against Georgia Pacific alleging pollution damage edges closer to trial, the plaintiffs have won a partial victory.

Georgia Pacific filed two motions for summary judgment, asking the court to rule that all of the plaintiffs’ claims have no legal merit. Chief Superior Court Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. on April 20 ruled that the nuisance and negligence claims should go before a jury but the trespass claim should not.

Woodrum ruled that case law requires than an “intentional, tangible invasion is necessary to support a trespass claim.”

GP has filed an appeal of Woodrum’s decisions to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

A trial had been scheduled to begin May 9 in Effingham, but that will be delayed indefinitely by the appeal.

The decision came in the first of the lawsuits, filed in Superior Court in 2010 on behalf of Kirbi and Aaron Ratner and David and Kathy McDonald. It alleges that hydrogen sulfide from Georgia Pacific sludge fields — which smells like rotten eggs — damaged their property.

The suits claim the chemical damages electrical wiring, refrigerator coils and heating and air conditioning systems and causes “discomfort, disrupted peace of mind, unhappiness and annoyance.”

Plaintiff’s lawyer Ben Perkins, of the Savannah firm Oliver Maner, has said the chemical is brought into homes by air conditioners and corrodes metals, damaging such things as electrical wiring and fire alarm systems.

The plaintiffs were granted class-action status, encompassing 116 owners of 65 parcels near the plant, but the state Supreme Court overturned that decision, prompting the 15 separate lawsuits to be filed.

The property owners live in or near the Mallard Pointe subdivision, across Old Augusta Road from the Savannah River Mill Plant.

The lawsuits say the plaintiffs’ property values have been damaged and ask for actual and punitive damages as well as legal fees.

Carrie Thompson, spokeswoman for Georgia Pacific, said Wednesday that in an effort to be a good neighbor, the company spent more than $30 million closing all six active sludge cells that were releasing hydrogen sulfide, a process completed in December 2015.

She said the company paid 31 neighbors a total of $300,000 to repair and replace air conditioners, including some of the people who are involved in the lawsuits.

She said the company offered to have an expert evaluate claims for additional damage to property other than air conditioners, but no one took advantage of that offer.

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