Cedar Grove denied waiver to dump more phosphorus

EVERETT — The state rejected a request by Cedar Grove Composting to get rid of limits on how much phosphorus the company can discharge into Steamboat Slough.

The company last year consistently exceeded the amount of phosphorus in stormwater that eventually ran into the slough. In large amounts the substance can harm fish.

“In this particular case we didn’t see anything in their application that suggested to us that a waiver was appropriate,” said Larry Altose, a Department of Ecology spokesman. “The ball is on their side of the net and we hope that it will be returned to us with a proposal to implement treatment. We’re prepared to work with them.”

Cedar Grove submitted the waiver request to the Department of Ecology in late May. Last week the company heard its request was denied.

“The response from (the Department of Ecology) is a surprise to Cedar Gove as well as the expert consultants that Cedar Grove Composting hired to assist us with these regulatory compliance issues,” said Susan Thoman, a company spokeswoman, in a written statement.

Phosphorus is a naturally occurring nutrient that in the water acts as a fertilizer for plants, Altose said. Too much of it can deprive fish of oxygen. Freshwater from the Snohomish River mixes with salt water from Puget Sound at Steamboat Slough.

Cedar Grove operates under an industrial stormwater permit that governs how the company is to deal with stormwater, Altose said. The company is required to submit periodic reports monitoring its stormwater discharge to the Department of Ecology. It is allowed to release 2 parts per million of phosphorus in runoff from its property. In the first, second and fourth quarters of 2011, the company discharged between 2.7 and 2.9 parts per million into the stormwater.

Cedar Grove, in its application for the waiver, said its phosphorus levels are not far above the limit. The application included statements that the company has tested treatments for phosphorus removal but those treatments wouldn’t stop too much phosphorus from getting into the water, or are too expensive to use at the facility. The company also noted that it shouldn’t need to meet phosphorus benchmarks because state guidelines are geared toward lakes, not rivers and marine waters.

Cedar Grove is not allowed* to appeal the decision. A treatment plan normally would be required to be put in place by Sept. 30 if the company agrees to proceed, Altose said. That date could change if the company is given an extension.

“We would be quite far from fines at this point because there’s not actually been a violation,” he said. “The benchmark needs to be followed up with a corrective action which in this case would be treatment, but they’re allowed to make their case. We hope that Cedar Grove will agree to take our decision and develop an acceptable treatment solution.”

If a technology that allows the company to consistently meet benchmark levels is found, Cedar Grove officials plan to take it to the Department of Ecology, Thoman said. The company hasn’t decided yet on a more immediate plan.

“We’re not aware of any other best management practices that we haven’t already tried that are approved for phosphorus,” she said. “I’m sure we have the option of responding (to the Department of Ecology). Our plan right now is to definitely discuss what our plans are.”

Cedar Grove collects, grinds and cures yard and food waste from Snohomish and King counties and sells it as compost for gardens. The company has been the target of odor complaints in recent years and has twice has been fined by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency.

Amy Daybert: 425-339-3491; adaybert@heraldnet.com.

* Correction, August 14, 2012: Cedar Grove Composting cannot appeal the Department of Ecology’s rejection of its request to eliminate limits on phosphorus discharges into Steamboat Slough. This story originally contained incorrect information on this point.

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