South Sioux City Health Board Meeting

Big Ox Energy spokesman Kevin Bradley speaks during a South Sioux City Health Board meeting at City Hall on March 15. Expenses incurred by the city and company for sewer odors linked to Big Ox's renewable energy plant recently eclipsed the $3 million mark, according to a Journal analysis of city records.

Jim Lee, Sioux City Journal file

SOUTH SIOUX CITY — A lingering fight over noxious sewer odors that forced dozens of South Sioux City residents to abandon their homes moved to the courtroom in 2017.

Starting in early December, seven homeowners filed civil suits against the city and Big Ox Energy, seeking nearly $3 million in damages.

The lawsuits and a series of state and federal regulatory actions taken against Big Ox are The Journal's No. 4 story of 2017.

The families were displaced for months due to potentially deadly fumes reported shortly after Big Ox started up its renewable energy plant in the Roth Industrial Park on Sept. 2, 2016. At the time, the neighborhood and the industrial shared a sewer line.

The city has spent $1.5 million for sewer upgrades completed this year. The upgrades included rerouting the industrial waste away from the affected neighborhood. The city and Big Ox also have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover displaced homeowners' relocation and living expenses.

That arrangement ended in February after the residents sought legal advice. To comply with state law, the owners, some of whom have yet to return home, filed tort claims against the city in May and then waited the required six months before filing their lawsuits in Nebraska state court.

All the suits claimed Big Ox and the city failed to maintain, operate and modify wastewater treatment facilities and sewer systems to handle waste from the plant and prevent the release of hydrogen sulfate and other toxic gases. As a result, the homeowners all say, they and their children suffer from health problems including respiratory illnesses, headaches, nausea, sleep disturbances, anxiety and emotional distress.

The lawsuits allege that Big Ox and the city knew or should have known after initial tests of the plant's operations in August 2016 that the municipal sewer system would unable to handle the pressures and substances being released into it, leading to the release of gases that escaped through manholes and into residences near the plant.

The Denmark, Wisconsin-based company has denied the allegations.

Big Ox Energy's more than $30 million plant extracts organic nutrients from animal, grain and other waste to create methane, which is sold into the natural gas pipeline.

Just days before the first homeowner lawsuits were filed, Big Ox reached a $50,000 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency in December for Clean Air Act Violations. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration also fined the company $60,000 earlier in the year.

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