Cedar Grove Gives Up Lock on Seattle Composting Amid Epic Battle Over Stench

Kevin P. Casey
This week's cover story takes a look at what you might call a dirty little secret of the environmental movement: Composting often stinks. Literally. In particular, our story examines more than a decade of odor complaints against Cedar Grove, one of the nation's largest composting firms.

*See Also: Cedar Grove: Reduce, Reuse, Revolting

With facilities in Everett and Maple Valley, Cedar Grove has been Seattle's lone composter since 1989, when the city first began collecting yard waste. But that's about to change.

Cedar Grove's contract with the city is due to expire as early as March 2014. So this past spring, Seattle Public Utilities asked for new bids. Cedar Grove did not submit a proposal.

Instead, Cedar Grove is acting as a mere adviser to another, smaller company called PacifiClean, which put in a bid. SPU is now negotiating with PacifiClean and a second, also relatively small company called Lenz Earthworks. The city intends to split its composting between the two firms.

Tim Croll, SPU's solid waste director, says he was surprised that Cedar Grove did not bid. But he also says that the department wanted to become less reliant on the company, and so made it be known that it would choose more than one contractor to handle the work. "We thought it was important not to have all our eggs in one basket," Croll explains.

Cedar Grove, he adds, referencing the longstanding odor complaints and an upcoming study of the problem by the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, "is facing a lot of challenges right now. Is it smart for us to commit ourselves to another six to eight years with all these questions hanging over its head?"

Yet Jerry Bartlett, Cedar Grove's chief environmental and sustainability officer, says the company's decision not to bid had nothing to do with the city's concerns. "We just made a business decision that maybe it's better to go in a different direction," he says.

In terms of the actual composting work Cedar Grove does, its business has been booming. As cities have expanded their composting programs, collecting food as well as yard waste, the company has processed more and more materials. Between its two facilities, Cedar Grove handles 350,000 tons a year.

It churns out so much compost, in fact, that it can't sell it all--at least not while a recession is underway. "Demand for compost has dropped over the last three years and Cedar Grove has built up a surplus," says Heidi Happonen, a spokesperson for the company. Up until now, most buyers of compost have been homeowners and housing developers.

But Bartlett says there's another potential "end user" that Cedar Grove sees as promising: farmers. Enter PacifiClean, which is building a composting facility near Cle Elum, well positioned to serve Eastern Washington's agricultural lands. Cedar Grove will get a toe hold in that market through its alliance with PacifiClean. Not only is Cedar Grove acting as an adviser to the smaller firm, but Cedar Grove president and CEO Steve Banchero is an investor in PacifiClean.

For the residents around Cedar Grove's local facilities, the company's exit from Seattle composting may be good news. The company will be taking in less waste, and one would think that would mean less of a smell.

Cedar Grove, though, has never admitted that it's the cause of the stench plaguing the neighborhoods around its facilities. And so, as our story lays out, you have a massive battle, complete with potential and already filed lawsuits, between the company and those who cry foul (air).

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