Four residents claim in a lawsuit that since a portable-toilet operation expanded in their neighborhood, the odors, gases and fumes have exacerbated their asthma, caused headaches and devalued their properties.
We’ve all seen them and maybe even used them — Honey Buckets, the blue, green or gray portable bathrooms at concerts, fairs, parks and construction sites.
Now imagine that sometimes-foul odor lingering in your backyard, your car or even in your bedroom.
That’s what four Pacific residents, who filed a lawsuit in Pierce County Superior Court, say they smell since the expansion of a Honey Bucket operation across the street.
“It’s a homeowner’s worst nightmare,” said Samantha Niemi, who lives about 300 feet from the Honey Bucket property. When it’s foggy, you can taste it, she said.
Her 8-year-old son, William, gags when he plays outside, and other children in the West Cedar Glen neighborhood off County Line Road Southwest stretch their shirts over their noses in an attempt to block the smell, Niemi added.
They claim, in their lawsuit against Northwest Cascade and its Honey Bucket and FloHawks divisions, that odors, gases and fumes have exacerbated their asthma, caused headaches and devalued their properties. During a hearing Friday, a Pierce County Superior Court judge reviewed the information and on Sept. 29 will determine if the case will be certified as a class-action lawsuit.
If granted, more than 75 homes located in the same neighborhood could join the suit, limiting their financial costs and procedural burdens on the court.
Northwest Cascade operates a small wastewater-treatment facility and cleaning station for Honey Buckets.
Vacuum pumper trucks suck the contents of the Honey Buckets, wherever they are located, and transport the waste to the property in Pacific, south of Auburn. The sewage is pressed into biosolids that are used for agriculture and landscaping. The remaining partially treated wastewater is sent through the King County Metro Wastewater Treatment system. The toilets are hauled to the Pacific facility, power washed and stored there until needed again.
Anna Shtogryn, another plaintiff who lives next to Niemi, said odors from the facility are so dense sometimes, her house smells like sewage when she wakes in the morning. Depending on the wind direction, the odor can last 20 minutes or several hours.
“My main concern is the health of my three children,” she said.
She feels lucky when, for days, they don’t smell anything.
Northwest Cascade President Carl Liliequist admits when they first operated the facility, odors traveled through the neighborhood. He said they’ve invested tens of thousands of dollars in equipment to eliminate the odors.
“We believe the odor issues have been solved,” he said. “We want to be good neighbors.”
He wouldn’t comment on the pending litigation.
Residents of Stanwood are trying to prevent a similar problem with odors at a proposed private site in their downtown. They formed a Facebook page in opposition to the McDay Septage Receiving Plant and Biosolids Processing Facility’s proposal to pre-treat 40,000 gallons of waste per day.
Issues began in 2014
When the Niemis bought their three-bedroom, two-bath home in 2011, she said there was little more than a truck yard across the street and some industrial buildings.
Problems started in 2014, when a conditional-use permit allowed Northwest Cascade to expand from a small sewage-treatment facility across the street to a cleaning site for the portable toilets.
That same year FloHawks, which pumps residential and commercial septic tanks and uses the Pacific facility, advertised on billboards that “Our customers give us crap every day” and “You think your job stinks?”
Honey Bucket has more than 35,000 toilets and restroom trailers in Washington, Oregon, California and Utah, Liliequist said.
About 5,000 portable toilets pass through the Pacific property on Roy Road each year, with 500 of them being stored there at any given time, he added. Each night about a dozen trucks pump raw sewage into the treatment facility. It also cleans the toilets located in the Puget Sound area at the Puyallup headquarters and in Woodinville.
As the company grew, the smell intensified and people from nearby businesses and homes complained to the city of Pacific and the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency (PSCAA).
While listening to odor complaints, city officials of this town of 7,000 people were mired in a scandal with then-Mayor Cy Sun.
Police and other city employees filed lawsuits, alleging the write-in candidate who became mayor was incompetent and corrupt. Sun was recalled and the city settled the lawsuits with employees in 2015.
Nearby companies also filed complaints with PSCAA, according to city public records, stating the odors were disrupting their work.
Apply-A-Line, which isn’t part of the lawsuit but is located next to Northwest Cascade, reported in April 2016 a “very pungent odor resembling a well used sani-can. The smell is so bad that it disrupts the work environment and requires closing the roll up shop doors.”
By May 2016, 47 people signed a petition, representing 150 adults and children, asking Pacific to force Honey Bucket to halt operations.
Three months later, the city ordered the company to cease operations for violating its permit, which prohibits the emission of obnoxious odors.
But Northwest Cascade appealed, and the city held off on forcing it to close.
Company officials opened a hotline so people could lodge complaints and even rate the odors’ intensity up to 5. When Shtogryn called the hotline that summer, saying the smell was a plus-5, within a half-hour two men came to her house unannounced.
JR Inman, vice president of FloHawks, peppered her with questions, Shtogryn said.
“I was so scared,” she added.
Intimidated by the experience, she and Niemi stopped calling the hotline and started keeping their own records.
Then neighbors noticed another fragrance coming from the facility.
“Heavy perfume smell and other chemicals, Burning eyes, eyes are watering badly,” Debbie Bird, who lives across the street from the treatment plant, reported in a complaint to PSCAA. “Very nauseous, Bad cough. We can taste it. I can’t get the Perfume smell out of our clothes!!”
PSCAA issued a notice of violation in December 2016 against Northwest Cascade for using a masking agent to hide the emission of an air contaminant.
PSCAA also visited the site several times for odor complaints but has not found Northwest Cascade in violation.
Next door to the hundreds of Honey Buckets, Leon Borodyansky, owner of HUB Group Trucking, said he and his employees hadn’t gone outside for work breaks because they couldn’t breathe.
But he said it’s improved.
“I’m crossing my fingers,” he added.
While the lawsuit continues, people email and call Jack Dodge, Pacific’s community development manager, about the pungent smell that invades their neighborhood.
He said new equipment installed by Northwest Cascade hasn’t solved the problem.
Dodge received an odor complaint Sept. 11 and is waiting for the new city attorney to determine the next course of action.
“I have smelled some odors: sewage smell and sometimes a sweet, sickly smell like an industrial Febreze,” he said.