Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 31, 2013

New lawsuit rises from decade-old Benzie case


HONOR — Ten Benzie County residents filed a new lawsuit over waste blueberry juice that a septage hauler illegally dumped in a nearby gravel pit more than a decade ago.

Local property owners contend waste product from a fruit processing plant contaminated their water wells and damaged a creek.

Homeowner Bradley Chicky is one of 10 plaintiffs to file suit last month in Benzie County Circuit Court. Defendants include Graceland Fruit, Bonney Bros. Pumping Company and Kevin and Gordon Bonney.

The suit contends the companies are responsible for illegally dumping blueberry juice waste. The liquid then migrated into well water.

Chickey said blueberry juice contamination forced him to rely on bottled drinking and cooking water at his Platte Road home.

"If you boil the water, it generates a sediment that almost looks like sand," Chicky said, adding his shower walls now have an orange tint and the creek in which his children play was damaged.

Graceland Fruit executives acknowledged the waste product came from their processing operations. But they contend company officials did not know their licensed hauler — Bonney Bros. Pumping Company — didn't properly dispose of the liquid.

The company is diligent, executives said, in responding to residents' concerns. The company pays for bottled water for several homeowners on Platte Road. The company also invested in on-site waste treatment at its manufacturing facilities.

The company installed, with the help of third parties, several monitoring wells in the area.

"We have at least a social obligation to provide bottled water," said Graceland Chief Executive Officer Al DeVore. "It's very difficult to tell what caused the issues ... but rather than take the approach that we have no obligation to this, we want to work with everyone."

Traverse City lawyer Joseph Quandt represents Bonney Bros. Pumping. He said lawsuit allegations are without merit, and said many of the plaintiff property owners "have had historic issues related to iron in their water that by far predate any of the issues associated with the impact at the site."

Others who joined Chicky in the suit include Gregory and Dixie Wilkins, Harold and Beatrice Bolton, Robert and Lorita Rayle, Raymond and Molly Franks, and Todd Crossman.

Blueberry waste dumping made local headlines for several years, beginning in March 2003 after a stream turned orange. Department of Environmental Quality investigators said Bonney Bros. Pumping Co. hauled 493 tankers of Graceland waste product to a gravel pit and dumped it.

A 2008 DEQ statement said the companies reached a deal with the state in which they promised to investigate and remediate groundwater contamination and restore the stream's condition. The statement said Graceland and Bonney Bros. agreed to pay $150,000 to settle the DEQ's allegations, and $100,000 in compensation for damages to state natural resources.

The DEQ called blueberry juice a "liquid industrial waste" and said it could not be disposed of by a septic hauler.

Local farmer Charles Brozofsky was the first to sue Graceland and Bonney Bros. Pumping. Brozofsky said the creek that runs through his farm was badly damaged. He settled with the companies in 2008 and received $95,000, said his attorney, Christopher Bzdok, of Traverse City.

The settlement also involved long-term cleanup requirements and regular stream monitoring.

"It contaminated a lot," Brozofsky said this week.

Chicky said problems remain at the creek near his home.

"At certain times of the year, you get this raunchy, trashy smell from the stream, and there's an orangeish slime," Chicky said. "All I wanted was for them to clean the creek up and give me a new well. I'm just looking out for the health of my three children."

Tom Fountain, director of environmental health for the Benzie-Leelanau Health Department, said water in the area is regularly tested and state officials monitor results. Water tests at several area homes show elevated levels of iron, he said.

"It's a huge stain issue and aesthetic issue," Fountain said. "It can make drinks and coffee taste terrible and make your hair to turn orange.

"The bottom line is the stream was polluted," Fountain said. "I've seen it with my own eyes, and that goes into a low wetland area (near) these homes on Platte Road. It's really an unfortunate event that happened here."

Traverse City attorney Jeffrey Jocks represents the Benzie property owners.

"The end goal is to make them whole, which is good water and covering damages to their property values," Jocks said.