Cedar Grove pushes bill that protects composting efforts

OLYMPIA — A bill to shield composting operations from lawsuits is getting steered through the Legislature by a composting firm with a history of odor-related disputes in Snohomish County.

Cedar Grove is the driving force behind the legislation that would amend the state’s Right to Farm law to include composting as a recognized agricultural activity entitled to protection from nuisance lawsuits.

Supporters say the proposed bill would not derail any pending litigation — including suits against Cedar Grove over odors from its plants in Everett and Maple Valley — but could buffer composting operations throughout the state from potentially debilitating future legal entanglements.

“It’s been well-documented that there have been multiple nuisance lawsuits filed against composting facilities in the state,” said Ashley Bach, a spokesman for Cedar Grove. “As demand for composting services increases, nuisance lawsuits make it challenging to provide the level of service requested by local communities, businesses and government partners.”

The bill is “an important measure to ensure that the operations of composting facilities around the state can continue to support waste reduction and recycling goals,” he said.

Existing state law says agricultural activities that take place on farmland are presumed to be reasonable and not a nuisance if they do not have “a substantial adverse effect” on health and safety. And it says those activities must be “consistent with good agricultural practices” and established before “any surrounding non-agricultural activity”.

Under Senate Bill 5431, the list of agricultural activities covered by the law would be expanded to include composting.

It cleared the Senate 43-0. There had not been much fuss about it until a public hearing Wednesday in the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee.

That’s when Elliot Paull of Issaquah testified that it does nothing to encourage an expansion of composting. Rather, he said, it is intended to benefit large composting firms like Cedar Grove against whom he and his neighbors have battled over the stench from the plant in Maple Valley.

“Cedar Grove and other large composters do provide a great service by taking yard and food waste and turning it back into compost,” he said. “But composting can produce noxious odors, with detrimental impact to neighbors. I believe one of the reasons for having nuisance laws in place is to prevent such odor pollution.”

Rep. June Robinson, who serves on the committee, voted against a similar House measure that lapsed last month. Cedar Grove’s north Everett site is in her district.

“I just don’t believe industrial scale composting is an agricultural activity,” she said. “They are definitely trying to protect themselves from future lawsuits. That’s my read.”

Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, the committee chairman, said he plans to move the bill out of committee and try to get it approved by the House.

“It seems like a reasonable bill,” he said, adding that if composting starts in a rural area it deserves some protection if people move nearby at a later date and don’t like the smell.

Rep. Derek Stanford, D-Bothell, another committee member, said, “I look at this through the lens of balancing agricultural activities and development.”

“Composting is important. It’s also important to take seriously the concerns of the neighbors,” he said, adding that he’s understanding it will still allow litigation on issues that may arise.

The Washington Organic Recycling Council, which represents organic recyclers around the state, supports the legislation, Bach said.

Initially, the cities of Everett and Marysville, and the Tulalip Tribes opposed the bill. Everett eased its stance after the bill was amended to make sure composting operations comply with city and county regulations.

Sen. John McCoy, D-Tulalip, said he wrote the language because Cedar Grove’s site in north Everett is on property zoned for light industrial, not farmland.

“They are not an ag operation,” he said. “This ensures they will have to adhere to all city and county rules.”

Marysville and the Tulalip Tribes still oppose the bill.

“My clients are not comfortable supporting legislation that might be restricting citizen rights especially with two active lawsuits under way,” said Al Aldrich, who lobbies on behalf of the city and tribes.

The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill March 29.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com Twitter: @dospueblos.

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