EVERETT — Cedar Grove Composting — long a target of complaints about odor — was allowed to double its capacity with limited environmental review despite not meeting the original conditions of its permit set years earlier, according to public records recently obtained by the city of Marysville.
Among those conditions was a mandate to enclose the grinding machine that pulverizes raw yard and food waste into compostable material.
This is one reason why Marysville says the composting plant on Smith Island in Everett should not be granted its request to build an anaerobic digester to generate electricity.
At the very least, the city and Tulalip Tribes say a full environmental study should be conducted on the plan, which also seeks to fill more than 6 acres of wetlands and create more than 7 acres of tidal marsh.
So far, the city of Everett and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, both of which will decide the fate of Cedar Grove’s application, have said the project will not have a significant effect on the environment and no study is necessary.
Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring said the city isn’t trying to shut down the composting operation.
“What we want is for them to be responsible in how they conduct themselves,” he said.
Mel Sheldon, chairman of the board for the Tulalip Tribes, expressed a similar sentiment.
“We don’t oppose composting,” he said. “We just want it to be done the right way.”
Everett and the Clean Air Agency are reviewing comments from Marysville and the tribes, along with nearly 30 others received, city spokeswoman Kate Reardon said. The comment period is over. A decision on whether a full environmental study is necessary will be made in the next few weeks.
Cedar Grove is paid to take yard and food waste from hauling companies around Snohomish County and parts of King County. It grinds and cures the waste into compost for use in gardens. It also collects food waste from restaurants.
Numerous odor complaints — most of them coming since the plant increased its capacity in 2008 — have been traced by inspectors for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to the composting operation. The plant opened in 2004. The company has a similar operation at Maple Valley in King County.
Last year, the company paid $119,000 in back fines for odor violations. The company had contested the fines, which were brought at both plants. It lost.
Many of those complaints came from Marysville, located downwind from the prevailing southwesterly breeze. The city has paid Perkins Coie, a Bellevue law firm, about $100,000 recently to look through public records and do other work related to the issue, city administrator Gloria Hirashima said. The firm wrote a 41-page letter contesting Everett’s preliminary decision not to require an environmental study.
When Cedar Grove received its operating permit in 2003 from Everett, several conditions were included. Among these was that its grinder be fully enclosed in some type of structure, according to public records. That never happened. An inspector for the Clean Air Agency who responded to odor complaints in 2008 traced the strongest odor at the plant to the grinder.
A spokesman for Cedar Grove said a certain type of building must be used for grinders, one that contains a type of wooden filter for odor.
“The grinder was too high for the building that would have been available to be built at the time,” spokesman Laird Harris said.
He didn’t explain why Cedar Grove didn’t build a larger structure.
In August, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency ordered Cedar Grove to enclose the grinder by this week. That hasn’t happened. Harris said a new, lower-profile grinder has been ordered that will fit inside a small building equipped with a filter.
In 2008, the company asked for and received permission from Everett and the Puget Sound Clean Air to nearly double the amount of compostable waste it receives, from 123,000 tons per year to almost 230,000. The request was granted despite the grinder not being enclosed, Marysville city officials point out.
Perkins Coie sent a letter last year to Everett raising questions. Everett planning director Allan Giffen responded in a letter dated Dec. 21.
“The city’s regulations do not require an applicant to demonstrate full compliance with all conditions of a previously approved permit before applying for a new permit or proposing changes to the originally approved permit,” Giffen wrote.
He was out of the office and could not be reached for this story.
Mayor Ray Stephanson declined to comment with the permit pending.
Everett City Councilman Paul Roberts, who is also chairman of the board of directors for the Clean Air Agency, said the permit process needs to play itself out.
“I think the letters (from the Tulalip Tribes and Marysville) raise good issues, but they’re being evaluated, and it’s best that I not comment on them and let the people who are supposed to make these evaluations do so,” he said.
The city’s 2008 approval of the tonnage increase did not specifically say how Cedar Grove’s plan met environmental requirements, according to the law firm. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency did a more thorough processing of the application from an odor standpoint, including a public hearing, records show.
The agency approved the tonnage increase with a six-page list of conditions for odor management, including regular inspections and reports.
The degree to which Cedar Grove has complied with those conditions is unclear. Laurie Halvorson, current compliance officer for the Clean Air Agency, would say only that no enforcement action is currently being taken against the company.
According to Cedar Grove’s numbers, the plant’s tonnage has increased but not to the maximum allowed. Since 2008, the plant has processed an average of about 167,000 tons per year, with a high of 195,194 in 2009 and a low of 139,474 last year.
Regardless, after the tonnage increased, odor complaints exploded. Only five complaints against Cedar Grove were documented by the Clean Air Agency from 2004 to 2008. From May to August 2008, there were 98.
Some Marysville residents have formed a group called Citizens for a Smell Free Snohomish County.
The company wants to build an anaerobic digester that would generate electricity from the methane gas found in compost. The Army Corps of Engineers and the state Department of Ecology have signed off on Cedar Grove’s plans to fill wetlands to create space for the digester, roads and parking.
The Tulalip Tribes say the wetlands plan is inadequate. They point out that the project will add 6 acres of paved surface and question the company’s plans to deal with runoff.
Also, from 2008 to 2010, Cedar Grove submitted applications showing it intended to nearly triple its currently allowed capacity, reaching up to 620,000 tons per year. The company has since backed off that request and is currently applying only to build the digester.
The tribes’ 10-page letter says the potential environmental impact of those original plans should be addressed as well.
“Cedar Grove’s proposal takes a piecemeal approach, only reviewing a single phase of a broader expansion plan,” the tribes’ letter states.
The odor issue should be fully studied along with water quality issues, according to the letter.
The tribes and Marysville both contend that Everett should classify Cedar Grove as a waste transfer station rather than an industrial use, as has been done under Everett city code.
Changing the designation would require a different type of permit with stricter guidelines.
Cedar Grove’s manufacture of compost for sale makes it an industry, Giffen has said.
Marysville and the Tulalips disagree.
“Garbage is garbage, whether it is delivered to Cedar Grove or to a landfill,” the Perkins Coie letter states.
Bill Sheets: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.