MARYSVILLE — Cedar Grove Composting has won a significant victory in a long-running civil lawsuit over what Marysville residents insist are intolerable odors coming from the company’s Smith Island plant.
The case in Snohomish County Superior Court was one of four lawsuits brought in 2013 by more than 350 plaintiffs in Snohomish and King counties. Cedar Grove also operates a larger composting operation in Maple Valley.
On April 7, a Snohomish County jury ruled 11-1 against James Moffat, of Marysville, one of the plaintiffs.
Attorneys agreed to try Moffat’s case as a bellwether, meaning his case would be decided first to get a general sense as to how the other individual plaintiffs’ cases could play out. The verdict doesn’t directly affect the outcome of those other cases if they go to trial.
“I think that’s pretty much it for me,” Moffat said. “As it sits right now, James Moffat doesn’t have any other recourse, but my wife still does, and others do.”
Moffat said winning monetary damages in court would have been less meaningful than getting the company to reduce the effect of its operations on surrounding neighborhoods. Moffat said he turned down a settlement offer from Cedar Grove.
“I view the fact that we’re requiring them go through what they’re going through as a victory, in kind,” he said.
The plaintiffs’ attorneys, the Simon Law Firm of St. Louis, Missouri, did not return calls or emails for comment.
The question the jury was asked was whether Cedar Grove acted unlawfully or failed to perform a duty that unreasonably interfered with others’ use and enjoyment of their property, or caused them annoyance, inconvenience and personal discomfort.
After a two-week trial, the jury said no.
The plaintiffs had argued the company’s operations constituted a public and private nuisance under state law. Cedar Grove denied that charge and said the plaintiffs could not prove that its operations were the source of obnoxious odors.
The company also argued that the plaintiffs may have been influenced by what it said was a negative public relations campaign by the city of Marysville, the Tulalip Tribes and their consulting firm, Strategies 360.
In 2013, the city was fined $143,000 for failing to disclose emails it sent to Strategies 360 related to their public relations work focused on the Cedar Grove dispute.
“Cedar Grove is relieved with this outcome and pleased with this vote of support for the services it provides to this community,” the company said in a statement. “Cedar Grove remains committed to being a good neighbor and will continue its efforts to mitigate against any odors leaving its Smith Island property.”
Ashley Bach, a spokesman for the company, said that Cedar Grove settled with bellwether plaintiffs in three other lawsuits.
Cedar Grove has had a rocky relationship with its neighbors since it set up shop on Everett’s Smith Island in 2004.
Neighbors frequently complain about the smell of composting operations. The company processed about 110,000 cubic yards of compost on Smith Island in 2016.
It is, however, difficult to determine precisely the sources of some smells, especially in an area that also includes one of Pacific Topsoils’ operations, two municipal wastewater treatment plants, and the Snohomish River estuary.
In past years, the company has been cited by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency for violations. Cedar Grove has paid fines.
The company also has invested millions of dollars in odor-control technology, including a synthetic cover to contain portions of the operation linked to some of the smells. In 2010, it installed an electronic odor-monitoring technology, dubbed “e-noses,” to track odors from its composting operations.
That hasn’t stopped the complaints, however. Since April 1, 2016, the clean air agency has fielded 59 complaints. The agency said that many of the complaints were followed up on, but none resulted in an onsite investigation, and as a result no further actions were taken against Cedar Grove.