Editor’s Note: this story originally ran in the Jan. 24 edition of the Everett Daily Herald.
A bill to shield composting operations from lawsuits is getting another look from state lawmakers.
Cedar Grove, a composting firm with a history of odor-related disputes, is behind the effort to amend state law to treat composting as an agricultural activity entitled to protection from nuisance suits.
Cedar Grove has six locations including Maple Valley, Everett and four others in King County.
House Bill 1167 received its first hearing Jan. 23 in the House Rural Development, Agriculture, & Natural Resources Committee. Virtually identical legislation passed out of this committee in 2017 and 2018 but did not advance further.
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.”
The House bill would expand the list of agricultural activities covered by the law to include composting. It also requires a composting facility to comply with city and county regulations.
The intent is to prevent frivolous lawsuits but not bar residents or regulatory agencies from “lodging legitimate complaints,” Rep. Amy Walen, D-Kirkland, the prime sponsor, told members of the committee.
“This does not give composters carte blanche to operate without oversight,” she said. “We absolutely will not take away anyone’s right to bring suit.”
Jay Blazey, general counsel for Cedar Grove Composting, told the committee the bill would “protect our industry” against the potential negative impact of costly nuisance suits.
The hearing comes weeks after the company settled two class-action lawsuits stemming from odor complaints about its operations at 3620 36th Place on Everett’s Smith Island and in Maple Valley.
In the former case, the company agreed to pay more than $785,000 to resolve claims by residents of the city and in Marysville. Cedar Grove also agreed to spend $1.45 million to reduce the potential for malodorous emissions. In the latter case, the company agreed to pay $1.4 million to settle claims and make $3.4 million in improvements to that site.
Blazey told lawmakers the company is investing in state-of-the-art odor control technology at both plants.
“Everything we do is all about mitigating odors,” he said.
Several residents of Maple Valley testified against the bill. Odors continue to be a problem and the proposed legislation would erase a potential avenue of redress, they said.
“We are at a disadvantage when we make our complaints,” said Janet Dobrowolski who lives in the Maple Hills neighborhood, a couple of miles north of the Maple Valley plant. “The only protection we have now is to face them with a lawsuit.”
Al Aldrich, a lobbyist for the city of Marysville and the Tulalip Tribes, said his clients strongly support composting but oppose the bill.
Odor issues associated with the Everett plant have persisted for more than a decade, he said. Changing the law would protect the facilities from future actions along the lines of the cases that the company settled recently, he said.
“Put it down,” he said.
Sen. Patty Kuderer, D-Bellevue, has introduced Senate Bill 5476 as a companion to the House bill. It has eight co-sponsors, including Democratic Sens. Marko Liias of Lynnwood and Steve Hobbs of Lake Stevens.
No hearing had been scheduled as of late Jan. 23.
This marks the third straight year Cedar Grove has worked to get this protection into law.
In 2017, the Senate passed Senate Bill 5431 on a 43-0 vote, with all seven senators in the Snohomish County delegation supporting it. It also passed in the House agriculture committee but never reached the floor for a vote.
In 2018, that House committee passed its own version of the legislation. It failed to come up for a vote in the chamber.