Updated Sunday, November 18, 2012 at 11:01 PM
Seattleites have stepped up their curbside composting since 2009, when Mayor Greg Nickels at a news conference dropped fake flowers and a rubber chicken into a yard-waste container to demonstrate the ease of dealing with food scraps.
But 35 miles north, Marysville residents say all that compost has been helping to stink up their city.
Marysville has waged an expensive two-year legal and public-relations battle with Cedar Grove Composting, which has a facility just outside its city limits. Now it looks likely the battle over the smell will come down to at least three lawsuits:
Cedar Grove is suing Marysville for allegedly withholding public records; a group of residents is planning to sue over the smell; and a Seattle attorney is collecting names for a possible class-action suit.
There's also evidence Marysville officials and consultants skirted state law to try to hide their expensive campaign against the company.
Complicating matters, the city finds itself fighting not just Cedar Grove but the region's politically popular environmental movement, which is loyal to companies that create "green jobs" and reduce waste.
"They have mountains and mountains of compost they can't seem to get rid of," said Gloria Hirashima, Marysville's chief administrative officer. "It comes down to if we don't continue to advocate for our citizens, who will?"
Cedar Grove says the smell isn't from its composting center, which accepts thousands of tons of waste from Seattle and other municipalities every year. Cedar Grove believes the offending smells might be coming instead from Marysville's sewage-treatment plant. The company says it is willing to help fund an independent study of what stinks, using electronic noses.
Huge piles of compost
On a good day, Byron and Kim Muck can walk out onto the deck of their home in southwest Marysville and see Mount Baker and Mount Rainier. On a bad day, they say, the pungent smell of rotting compost drives them indoors. For years, the couple said, the smell that wafts through their neighborhood was earthy, like grass clippings. But for the past five years, they say, the smell of decomposing food has lingered over their backyard for most of the summer.
"We're all for compost," Byron Muck said. "We just want them to be good neighbors about it and do something about the smell."
Cedar Grove opened the plant in 2004 and started processing truckloads of leaves, cardboard, restaurant and grocery-store leftovers, grass clippings and household-food scraps. The company grinds it up in a building with an air-filtration system and then lets it break down in heaps, covered with a laminate membrane designed to keep out the rain and control odor. Within eight weeks, the waste turns into organic compost that they sell for gardening and construction projects.
In 2012, the 28-acre facility is expected to take in 128,000 tons, down from 195,194 tons in 2009. For three years, they have made more compost than they can sell, and they store huge piles of surplus compost.
Soon after Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring took office in 2010, the Mucks and their neighbors presented him with 1,300 signatures demanding the city help fight Cedar Grove. Residents said the smell was so bad, summer barbecues and gardening were out of the question. The city's annual Strawberry Festival is routinely "stunk out," said activist Mike Davis, who leads a citizens group that plans to file a lawsuit.
The city distributed fliers with information about how to make formal odor complaints to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency. As the fight escalated, the city hired outside law firm Perkins Coie and got additional help from a public-relations firm, Strategies 360.
Between 2010 and 2012, Marysville paid Perkins Coie about $200,000, and Strategies 360 at least $5,000 a month, to do lobbying work and to help with Cedar Grove. Strategies 360 is a prominent Seattle public-relations firm co-founded by Ron Dotzauer.
Cedar Grove has hired its own Seattle public-relations firm, The Fearey Group.
"This process has actually consumed way more resources than any of us imagined," Hirashima said.
The city opposes the independent odor study offered by Cedar Grove, saying it's a stall tactic. The Puget Sound Clean Air Agency agreed to apply $119,000 in odor fines from Cedar Grove to the study, and Cedar Grove is pitching in another $81,000. Seattle, King County and the state also are helping pay.
Seattle officials have continued to encourage composting, and resisted getting involved with Cedar Grove's dispute with Marysville. About 20 percent of the waste at Cedar Grove comes from Seattle, the company says. Much of Seattle's food and yard waste goes south, to a Maple Valley facility.
The citizens group has scrapped efforts to work with public agencies and is preparing to file a lawsuit against Cedar Grove.
"I'm disgusted with them," said Davis. "They're not a green company that everybody can be proud of. This is not the solid-waste solution that [Seattle] Mayor McGinn envisioned, or [former Seattle] Mayor Nickels, I don't think."
Battle over city records
Cedar Grove sued the city in August, and the company's lawyers have requested thousands of pages of city records and correspondence. Hirashima says city employees spent as many as 400 hours responding to the company's requests.
And what the company found raised questions under the state Public Records Act.
Cedar Grove says the city and its consultant tried to hide the details of their campaign by sending emails to city officials' personal email addresses or routing emails through an attorney's office to protect them under attorney-client privilege. Then, they redacted portions of emails without offering a legal reason.
"I definitely do not want Cedar Grove to see the trail on this," Strategies 360 consultant Kristin Dizon wrote in an email July 26, 2011, asking the city attorney to forward the document to Hirashima and Nehring.
In other emails that were initially blacked out, consultants, the attorney and city officials exchanged media lists, bits of strategy and weekend plans. In one exchange, city attorney Grant Weed wrote that he was having trouble opening the attachment so he could forward it to city officials.
"Don't worry in that event," the consultant wrote. "I will send to their personal addresses."
In a deposition, the Marysville city clerk acknowledged the city blacked out emails they said were "legal advice" that were actually about employees' plans to go to baseball games and climb Mount Rainier.
Hirashima said the city initially blacked out the content based on the city attorney's advice. When Cedar Grove challenged them, they released the emails.
In an interview, Hirashima blamed the city's consultant for misunderstanding records laws. Documents Dizon routed through the attorney or personal accounts were already public, Hirashima said, so it didn't make a difference.
"I think it's making a mountain out of a molehill," Hirashima said. "Did she make some comments that look bad? Yeah. But I think if you look at the content, they were kind of meaningless comments."
Dizon said Strategies 360 routinely sent emails through the city attorney's office for review "because Cedar Grove is notoriously litigious."
In a statement, Dizon said: "There's never been any attempt to go around the Public Records Act and the city has spent hundreds of staff hours responding to Cedar Grove's constant requests and has provided around 30,000 documents to them. Rather than attacking the people who are trying to defend their communities or trying to blame others, Cedar Grove should spend its time and money fixing its odor emissions and impacts."
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A bulldozer at Cedar Grove pushes finished compost product off the top of the pile so loaders can take it to the sales area.
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Kim and Byron Muck say it stinks on their deck from May to September because of the nearby composting facility.
ELLEN M. BANNER / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A worker turns off the grinder in a shed filled with compost last week at Cedar Grove Composting near Marysville. Cedar Grove points to a sewage-treatment plant as the possible source of a smell in the area.