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Families win landfill suit

| Saturday, Aug. 18, 2001

PITTSBURGH - In what could become a milestone case, the state Superior Court ruled in favor of six Forward Township families who sued the owners of a nearby landfill.

A panel of three state Superior Court judges ruled Friday that the Kelly Run Landfill, owned by Waste Management Inc., has been a nuisance for residents living adjacent to the property on Williamsport Road in Allegheny County.

The families were awarded 30 percent of their home value for living with nuisances such as smoke, noise and odor from the landfill. Each family will receive about $30,000 to $50,000. The residential neighborhood consists of several split-level ranch homes with spacious yards. The homes are worth more than $100,000.

For Patty Belback, who has lived on Williamsport Road over 20 years, the decision prompted reason to celebrate.

'We're elated,' said Belback. 'We've been living with the smoke, blasting noises and traffic at all hours of the night and it's great that the court has recognized that this has been a nuisance.'

The nuisance lawsuit was originally filed by 12 residents, but an Allegheny County Common Pleas Court judge nixed two defendants who didn't live close enough to the landfill and a few others dropped out. The families not only sued based on the nuisances from the 400-acre landfill, but claimed that their homes have depreciated in value.

'All we ever wanted was for Kelly Run to pay us what we would lose from the value depreciation of our homes if we sold them,' Belback said.

The case was heard before Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge Joseph James in 1999, where a jury awarded actual damages to the families after hearing five-weeks of testimony about the nuisances from the landfill.

James, however, declined awarding punitive damages to the families, a decision they in turn appealed to the higher court.

That jury decision was also appealed by Kelly Run Landfill and it was heard before the Superior Court in Pittsburgh on March 14, 2001.

The Superior Court ordered Friday that damages be paid stemming from the 1999 jury decision. The Superior Court decision also states the suit will go back to Allegheny County Common Pleas Court for punitive damages.

John Skoutelas, vice president for the eastern region of Waste Management, declined comment on the decision, stating he hadn't reviewed it yet.

Cliff Levine, attorney for Waste Management, was unavailable for comment.

Bob Ging has been the Forward Township families' attorney since 1995. He said the Superior Court decision is the first case in the state he is aware of where citizens were awarded damages for a nuisance claim against a landfill.

'It's really heartening for us,' said Ging.

Belback said when she moved to her home in 1979, there was a small dump more than a half-mile from her home. Today, a fence is the only space between her home and the expanded landfill.

Although the landfill has been in operation since 1958, Kelly Run has acquired over 300 acres of farmland to expand it over the years.

The Williamsport Road neighbors formed a citizens group, Residents Against Garbage Expansion, or RAGE, several years ago. The group has filed numerous complaints and appeals with the Forward Township Supervisors, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and other agencies against the operations at the landfill.

The dispute over the landfill came to a head in March 1997, when the DEP issued an expansion permit for Kelly Run to construct 48 acres of new disposal space.

That same year, high levels of methane fumes were detected at the home of former Williamsport Road resident Fred Greco. The methane that had surfaced was due to garbage buried under their property and along the border of Kelly Run for nearly 25 years. Kelly Run has since bought Greco's home, and the family was forced to move.

State Rep. Dave Levdansky (D-Forward Township), has also been vocal in his fight against expansion of the landfill and the nuisances.

'This decision sends a strong signal to landfills, especially in that punitive damages will likely be awarded,' said Levdansky.

Levdansky said he is going to seek tougher legislation for municipalities that enter into host contracts with landfill operators. Forward Township currently gets about $100,000 a year from Kelly Run, he said.

The Kelly Run landfill is currently for sale. Waste Management bought the site, which borders Route 51, from United Waste Systems Co.

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