Residents sue Cedar Grove Composting over odors
February 5, 2013
By Warren Kagarise
In Mirrormont, longtime homeowner Cathe Avila can no longer keep windows open at home, or walk black Labrador retriever Django in the neighborhood.
The problem, she said, is the odor from the Cedar Grove Composting facility in unincorporated King County between Issaquah and Maple Valley, about seven miles southwest of downtown Issaquah.
Avila said the odor is traceable to 2004, once Cedar Grove starting accepting food scraps for composting.
“Then, after that, the smell just started getting worse and worse,” she said.
So, late last month, residents near Cedar Grove facilities outside of Issaquah and in Marysville filed separate lawsuits seeking damages for odors causing “inconvenience and substantial personal discomfort,” court documents state.
The lawsuits encompass more than 400 people in rural King County and the Marysville area in Snohomish County. The plaintiffs seek up to $75,000 each in damages from Cedar Grove.
Avila, a Mirrormont homeowner since 2002, said she appreciated the option once Cedar Grove starting accepting food scraps, but soon after started facing problems related to odors she attributed to the composting facility.
“I don’t think this is a problem that can’t be fixed. I think it probably can be fixed,” she said.
Cedar Grove pointed to efforts to control odors at the facilities and work with nearby residents.
“Composting is very important to the future of our planet. Cedar Grove has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to control and minimize the natural organic odors associated with composting,” Susan Thoman, Cedar Grove director of public affairs and communications, said in a statement. “We expect to prevail on the merits of this dispute.”
Issaquah and other King County cities send food scraps to the nearby facility for composting.
“Cedar Grove is thoroughly committed to being a good neighbor and a major ‘green’ jobs employer in Southeast King County, serving the critical recycling needs of residents throughout the region by creating quality organic compost for local schools and gardens, while providing a service that significantly reduces our regional carbon footprint,” Thoman continued.
In Marysville, homeowner Mike Davis formed Citizens for a Smell Free Snohomish County in 2009 after odors he attributed to the composting facility there soured a summertime cookout.
Residents near Issaquah filed a lawsuit in King County District Court on Jan. 23 — the same day residents near the Marysville facility filed a lawsuit in Snohomish County District Court.
Marysville residents face same problem
The underlying problem is the same for residents near both Cedar Grove facilities, Smith said.
“I’ve been down there, and it’s exactly the same smell, it’s exactly the same issue, it’s exactly the same company,” he added.
Smith, like residents near the King County facility, reported odors throughout the years to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for documentation and response.
“Needless to say, I tried to do it the right way,” he said. “I tried to say, ‘Look, you’ve got a problem. Let’s handle it.’ It became clear that wasn’t going to happen.”
In a 66-page ruling issued in July 2011, state Pollution Control Hearings Board officials ordered Cedar Grove to pay $119,000 for odor violations at both facilities. The company later contested the fines and lost.
“For me, there came a point where it was clear that they weren’t going to fix it without force,” Smith said. “We ran out of options.”
Todd Hageman, a St. Louis attorney representing the residents from both counties, said the lawsuits included about 85 people in Snohomish County and about 320 people in King County.
The legal team is working on a contingency basis and does not get paid unless the plaintiffs win the lawsuits.
Early last year, plaintiffs contacted Hageman and other attorneys experienced in similar cases.
“What we find is, people do not call us until they have been trying — most of the time for years — to get the problem solved through other routes,” Hageman said. “It’s only after they have their frustration tested beyond what they can possibly endure any further, they contact us as a last resort.”
Confusion occasionally arises about the source of odors in rural King County because the Cedar Grove facility is near Cedar Hills Regional Landfill, a 920-acre landfill owned and operated by King County.
Dean Voelker, operations supervisor at the landfill, said the facility manages a sophisticated system to control odor and collect landfill gases.
If the county Solid Waste Division receives a call about odors possibly emanating from the landfill, a trained staffer is dispatched to the caller’s area to check. The teams sniffing nearby neighborhoods undergo special training to recognize smells.
“When the calls do come in, we actually will go out and investigate whether it’s odor coming from the landfill or another source,” Voelker said.