Cedar Grove Composting plants in Everett and Maple Valley are turning huge amounts of waste into a popular landscaping product, but many neighbors say the odor is unbearable.

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It isn’t your grandmother’s backyard compost pile.

In the new world of industrialized composting, garbage trucks and semis unload food scraps and yard waste in tipping buildings the size of aircraft hangars.

Scooped up by front-end loaders, the material is ground and shaped into 450-ton heaps resembling colossal meatloaves, then covered with fabric and aerated by computer-controlled fans.

Cedar Grove Composting’s plants in Maple Valley and Everett have been hugely successful in diverting 344,000 tons of waste a year from landfills and turning it into a popular gardening product. More than one-third of the material comes from Seattle homes and restaurants.

But that success has come at a price.

Neighbors of the region’s largest composting plants are making hundreds of complaints a year over smells they call “nauseating,” “gagging” and “unbearable,” and the state Pollution Control Hearings Board last month upheld fines against the company.

The company has appealed to King County Superior Court.

Since going into business next to King County’s Cedar Hills Landfill in 1989, Cedar Grove has struggled to control odors. And it has battled neighbors and regulators, saying it is being unfairly blamed for smells that come from other sources.

Now Marysville and Tulalip tribal leaders say the company has done more to point fingers at others than solve the problem at the 7-year-old Everett site.

Neighbors complain

When Cathe and Dean Avila moved from California to Washington nine years ago, they looked at homes in the Maple Hills neighborhood near Cedar Grove’s Maple Valley composting site.

But because there was “a little bit of an odor” there, they instead bought a house in Mirrormont, three miles from Cedar Grove. Soon after their garbage hauler began collecting food waste for composting, “We got hit with that smell,” Cathe Avila said.

When the smell is bad, she said, it’s like “somebody forcing your head over a garbage can of rotting, sweet food. … There were nights last summer when my husband and I were going, ‘Is there enough money in the bank to go stay at a hotel?’ “

One night, the stench forced her out of bed and into the bathroom, where she threw up, Avila says. One of her complaints to the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency led to an $11,000 fine when an inspector smelled the odor at her home and traced it back to Cedar Grove after ruling out other possible sources.

The company disputed that fine and 16 others for its Maple Valley and Everett plants, saying agency inspectors weren’t trained in the science of odor investigation. In some cases, it argued, the wind was blowing in a direction that made it “meteorologically impossible” for its compost to have caused the smell.

The state Pollution Control Hearings Board last month upheld the fines but reduced them from $169,000 to $119,000, saying the company has spent millions trying to keep odors from drifting off site. The board also said the company’s response to complaints has been mixed, sometimes investing in improved processes, sometimes denying responsibility and blaming others.

Not all of Cedar Grove’s neighbors are angry. Metropolitan King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, one of the Maple Valley site’s closest neighbors, says he doesn’t often smell the compost, “and when I do it’s pretty mild. … Everybody’s nose is different, I’ve noticed that.”

Company responds

A report written for Cedar Grove last year by CH2M HILL said a frequent complainant a mile from the Everett plant may have mistaken odors from a crematorium for compost. However, the crematorium had been closed for years, and current odor consultant Mark Wolken says it was “probably an incorrect guess” to blame the incinerator.

Cedar Grove officials say Wolken and a team of trained “odor observers” have helped the company improve its processes so they smell less.

Wolken reported Cedar Grove was responsible for fewer than 1 percent of odor complaints around Everett for several months last year. He said more smells came from farms, topsoil yards, boatyards, the Marysville sewage-treatment plant and a Tulalip Reservation landfill that closed in 1979.

“I think Mark’s reporting says a couple things,” says Cedar Grove’s chief environmental and sustainability officer, Jerry Bartlett: “Yes, that Cedar Grove is responsible for odors. It says yes, there are lots of other odor sources. I think it really focuses on the fact that we spent $2 million on controlling odors [in Everett] since 2008 and to a large extent it worked.”

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring and Tulalip Tribes Chair Mel Sheldon aren’t buying it. In a letter to Cedar Grove last month, they objected to “continued finger-pointing, denial and retaliation, with no commitment to resolving the problems at hand.” They said they were prepared to “pursue this at both a political and legal level.”

Company President Steve Banchero replied he was “shocked” by the tone of the letter, reaffirmed the company’s willingness to help pay for an independent odor investigation, and offered to meet privately with the city and tribal leaders.

Finding solutions

Cedar Grove has repeatedly modernized its composting methods, spurred in part by a $9.5 million settlement of a 1977 class-action lawsuit by Maple Valley residents, and by pressure from regulatory agencies.

Since 2008, Cedar Grove says, it has spent $6.5 million to control odors at its two locations. The company expanded the buildings where trucks dump waste, enclosed a grinder at Maple Valley, and began spraying mist to control dust.

The composting firm is now seeking permits to install an airtight anaerobic digester to break down “highly putrescible” food waste and grass in Everett. The $15 million facility would burn methane, generating enough electricity to power 400 homes.

Cedar Grove also is looking for a more remote site to replace the Maple Valley operation but says that could take several years.

Some neighbors want the company to fully enclose both operations in buildings. A similar-size plant that composts sewage solids in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has been virtually complaint-free but cost nearly $80 million.

Cedar Grove officials say the company’s fabric-covered compost piles contain 98 percent of odors — better than the 90 percent effectiveness of a building. The best way to further reduce smell is putting in a digester in Everett, they say.

“Even though we’ve spent millions of dollars and will spend more to control the odor problem, the odor complaints won’t go away,” Bartlett says. “People won’t realize it wasn’t us. We are absolutely convinced if we shut down our operation, the Clean Air Agency would keep getting complaints from people who think it’s Cedar Grove.”

Marysville and the Tulalip Tribes have begun putting pressure on Cedar Grove’s biggest source of business, Seattle, asking Mayor Mike McGinn and the City Council in a letter “to intercede with your contractor.”

McGinn hasn’t publicly commented. Mike O’Brien, chair of the Seattle City Council’s Seattle Public Utilities and Neighborhoods Committee, said he believes Cedar Grove is working hard to solve the problem and the market “will tend to take care of it.”

Solid Waste Director Tim Croll said odor complaints are primarily an issue between the company and regulatory agencies but the city will consider odor when it decides whether to extend Cedar Grove’s contract beyond 2013.

Neighbors, meanwhile, have lost their patience.

“We need to compost,” said Cathe Avila. “It’s the day and age we live in. It needs to happen. But we need to do it in a way that doesn’t impact our air and our water. Basically they’re making this area out here unliveable, and it’s spreading out further and further.”

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com