Cedar Grove: Reduce, Reuse, Revolting

The problem with compost? It smells like garbage, especially in Marysville.

It hadn’t been easy for Mike Davis to get his father to his home in Marysville. Living in Sisters, Oregon, the elder Davis didn’t like to travel, even for a 70th-birthday party his son wanted to throw him. But Davis managed to lure his dad up by using the grandkids as bait.

Some 15 members of the family gathered on Davis’ deck, which overlooks a lush backyard replete with a miniature pond and recirculating waterfall. It was a warm March day in 2010. Davis walked outside to start grilling steaks, looked around, and noticed something was wrong. “My dad looked like he was going to puke,” Davis recalls. A strong smell had invaded his yard, one Davis likens to the odor of “rotting food.” It was so overpowering that the rest of his family fled indoors. Davis did his grilling and then joined them.

“That was the day I decided I needed to do some investigating,” Davis says.

He already thought he knew the malodorous culprit: the Cedar Grove composting facility in North Everett, which sits just across Union Slough from Marysville on a marshy bit of land known as Smith Island. Davis had on previous occasions noticed a foul scent lingering near his house, and drove the roughly three-and-a-half miles to Cedar Grove in an attempt to track it down. There, amid towering brown compost mounds that look like flattened mountains, he says he caught whiffs of the same smell.

But the ruined birthday party was the last straw. Davis called the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, the primary regional entity responsible for dealing with air pollution. He lodged a complaint against Cedar Grove and asked how many other local residents had done the same. “I found out there were hundreds and hundreds of complaints,” he says.

Indeed, that same year, a staggering 830 people had complained to PSCAA about an oppressive odor emanating from Cedar Grove. (Since the facility opened in 2004, more than 2,500 complaints have been filed with the agency, which is governed by a number of counties, including King and Snohomish.) Davis was so fired up after hearing about the complaints that he started a petition calling for government action, organized a community meeting, and launched a group called Citizens for a Smell-Free Snohomish County.

Unlike many citizen activists, Davis does not play the role of a grouchy outsider. Marysville officials, including Mayor Jon Nehring, agree that the smell is insufferable, that Cedar Grove is the problem, and that regulators need to put a stop to it. But that’s not such an easy proposition, largely because Cedar Grove has consistently and aggressively denied that it is stinking up the region. In fact, the company has blamed a host of other entities for the problem, starting with its chief critic, the city of Marysville.

In August, Cedar Grove filed suit against the city, claiming that officials are withholding public records related to a “public-relations campaign aimed at spreading disinformation about Cedar Grove, including the false allegation that Cedar Grove was the primary source of odors in the Marysville area.” This alleged smear campaign, the suit claims, is aimed at diverting attention from the real stinker: the city’s own wastewater-treatment plant. The suit also names Davis as a pawn in this purported cover-up.

Both the city and Davis deny those charges. “It’s a total fabrication,” Davis says. His anger stoked even further, he is taking the odor war to a new level. He and others in his group have retained two out-of-town lawyers to look into a suit against Cedar Grove. The attorneys, Todd Hageman of St. Louis and Zak Johnson of Jacksonville, Fla., have frequently worked together on odor-nuisance lawsuits against waste-management facilities, although this is their first case involving a composting site. Hageman says he already has 50 would-be plaintiffs.

What’s more, Hageman and Johnson are handling another potential suit against Cedar Grove, this one by people who live near a second plant that the company runs in Maple Valley. Residents there have been complaining about the smell for more than a decade, and now some 50 of them have indicated an interest in taking legal action, according to Hageman.

The acrimony is all the more incredible considering the beneficent image Cedar Grove maintains. Composting is one of the touchstones of environmentalism, hailed as the next wave after recycling for reducing landfill waste and turning trash into gold, or rather, green—a product that literally nurtures the earth. And Cedar Grove is not only the region’s best-known composting company—for many years the exclusive contractor of its kind for Seattle and many other municipalities—but one of the country’s largest, processing 350,000 tons of waste a year at its two local facilities.

Garbage Gone Green is the title of a video about Cedar Grove on the website of a nonprofit called Climate Solutions. “Big picture, we’re doing enormous things for the environment,” says Cedar Grove soil specialist Jami Burke in the video. Government officials across the region have bought in to that message—big-time. In fact, it was Seattle’s push to start composting that prompted the Banchero family, onetime operators of a prominent conventional waste-disposal company called Rabanco, to found Cedar Grove in 1989, as company president Steve Banchero explains in the video.

Seattle, like other municipalities, has steadily ramped up its composting program, which began by collecting yard waste. In 2005, the city started encouraging people to put vegetable scraps into their big, green composting bins. Four years later, it green-lit all kinds of food waste, including meat and dairy, and increased collection from semiweekly to weekly.

On the first day of the latest initiative, über-liberal Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman had Seattle City Councilmember Richard Conlin on to talk about how this step would help create more “green jobs” and foster goals like “sustainability,” “social justice,” and “community.” But it was Seattle’s 2009 expansion—along with Cedar Grove’s simultaneous entry into the commercial food-waste business, which has the company collecting compostable materials from grocery stores and restaurants—that many Cedar Grove neighbors blame for the onset of the odor problem. Conlin doesn’t offer an opinion on that, saying that the stench is “not something we’ve spent a lot of time on” given that it doesn’t affect Seattle, and that “most new technologies have issues they need to work through.”

However, as PSCAA executive director Craig Kenworthy says: “We as a region got ahead of ourselves. We wanted to have this great goal of recycling waste without understanding how that might work or what the consequences might be.”

In the summer of 2010, PSCAA had gotten such a tidal wave of complaints about Cedar Grove that it sent inspectors to “literally camp out in Marysville,” says supervising inspector Mario Pedroza. It was a frustrating experience, he recalls. They could smell an odor all right, but holding Cedar Grove responsible was another matter.

PSCAA’s self-imposed protocol is strict. Inspectors can’t issue violations unless there has been a citizen’s complaint. And then they have to smell the offending odor themselves at the exact spot that the citizen did. “I could drive through the odor en route to the complainant,” Pedroza says. “But if by the time I got there it was gone, there is no violation.”

Although Davis and other residents say the odor can stick around interminably, inspectors frequently arrived on the scene too late to catch a whiff. Wind often gusts over the flatlands between Everett and Marysville, giving the odor peculiar properties. “It moves like a river,” Pedroza explains. “There are distinct edges to it. You can step in it and out of it. A slight shift in the wind, and that odor’s going to move.”

For the same reason, even if inspectors did smell the offending odor at one location, they often couldn’t track down the source. Still, by the end of 2010, PSCAA’s odor detectives had issued two violations against Cedar Grove. And that was just from complaints in Marysville. Around the same time, the agency hit the composting company with 15 violations for its Maple Valley plant.

That plant was Cedar Grove’s first composting facility, started in 1989. Not much later, local residents started noticing a foul smell. Sharon Schimke is one of them.

In 1967, Schimke and her husband Gary built a ranch home in a woodsy part of unincorporated King County that straddles the borders of Renton, Issaquah, and Maple Valley. It was still a somewhat rural location then, as evidenced by the pig farm about a mile away, across a long stretch of trees that faced the couple’s back deck.

It was the pig farm that Cedar Grove bought for its first composting plant. By 1992, Schimke started calling both PSCAA and Cedar Grove to complain about fumes that were infiltrating her bedroom window, which she liked to keep open while she slept. Sometimes the smell was so strong, she says, that it woke her up and caused her stomach to churn.

“It’s horrendous. It’s about as rotten as can be. You’d think you were in the middle of a swamp,” Schimke says. She says PSCAA told her to “call every single night, if necessary,” and so she did, sometimes leaving messages at 2 or 3 in the morning. She reckons she’s filed 100 complaints in all.

Sitting in her living room one evening, facing the woods-lined deck, the 71-year-old discloses one reason she’s so irate: About six years ago, Schimke was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She says the nighttime smells would aggravate the nausea she felt from the cancer, which is now in remission. “I’d start gagging and gagging,” she says. She kept a bucket by the bed for when she threw up.

Far worse, she blames the fumes for giving her the disease. “I can’t prove it,” she allows, before stating her suspicions have been raised by a spate of cancer in the neighborhood. But Lynne Carpenter-Boggs, a professor of sustainable and organic agriculture at Washington State University, says she “can’t think of anything” about composting that would be “cancer-causing.” The worst disease she’s heard of related to the industry is “farmer’s lung,” a fungal infection that she says is very difficult to treat. However, “there are very few cases,” she says, and those usually afflict people who work directly with compost.

Hageman, the lawyer from St. Louis, also doesn’t know of any link between composting facilities and cancer. Instead, he rattles off an array of less-severe health effects: “nausea to the point where people throw up, burning eyes, itching throats, headaches.”

Such ill effects are what a group of approximately 20 residents around the Maple Valley facility cited when in 1997, presaging litigation now in the works, they filed a class-action suit against Cedar Grove. They claimed that the “fumes and gases” coming from Cedar Grove were the reason for their health problems and were generally interfering with the “enjoyment of their property.” Cedar Grove settled the suit in 1999, paying the citizens $500,000 and allowing them to collect nearly $9 million from the company’s insurance policies.

Schimke was not among the plaintiffs, but says she got a $3,400 payout from the suit as a member of the aggrieved class. Others, depending on how badly they’d been affected, got tens of thousands of dollars. More important, Schimke says, the odor began to abate. But she asserts it came back with a vengeance after a few years, something she too attributes to the onset of food-waste composting programs.

So she started filing more complaints. One September morning in 2009, she called PSCAA to report a smell that nauseated her as she went outside to collect her newspaper. The environs around the Maple Valley plant are less windy than those near the facility up north, so odors create a steadier and more incriminating path. PSCAA inspector Rick Hess came to Schimke’s home, smelled what he later called on a violation notice a “sweet ripe silage odor,” and tracked the smell to Cedar Grove.

By the end of 2010, Cedar Grove was looking at $169,000 in fines for violations in both Maple Valley and Everett. Characteristically, the company appealed to the state Pollution Control Hearings Board.

The case was a watershed. Before the board were a litany of complaints from residents on opposite sides of the Puget Sound region who described a very similar smell and shared a belief that Cedar Grove was the cause. Like Davis and Schimke, they complained of feeling trapped in their home and literally getting sick from the smell. One Renton resident, Jeremy Brown, was an environmental-science teacher who often used compost. Yet even he said this smell was so overpowering that he couldn’t walk in his garden or play outside with his children.

Also before the board was Cedar Grove’s claim that those complaints, and PSCAA’s subsequent investigations, were not based on “scientific” evidence. Backing up the company was the testimony of an air-quality scientist named Kirk Winges, who opined to the board that inspectors really should be sent to an “odor school” so that their findings would be “verifiable, repeatable, objective, and qualitative.” None of PSCAA’s inspectors had been to such a school.

Yet the board sided with the judgment of those inspectors, whom it said “had a great deal of experience.” It found Cedar Grove guilty of all 17 violations. While the board lowered the associated fines by $50,000 in recognition of facility modifications Cedar Grove had made to control odors, the state body nevertheless called the company’s transgressions “serious” and “ongoing and repetitive.”

“Well, finally,” Marysville’s Mayor Nehring says Cedar Grove’s critics thought. But Cedar Grove threatened to appeal up the ladder to Superior Court. Unexpectedly, PSCAA settled with the company. Cedar Grove would not pay the fines as such. Rather, PSCAA would use the money for an “odor study” in the Everett and Marysville areas.

“This is an entity that has consistently pointed the finger at a number of other people for a long time and denied that it was a source of the problem,” PSCAA’s Kenworthy explains. This study, he suggests, should prove who’s causing the problem once and for all. Not only that, but if the problem is Cedar Grove, the study should help identify what part of the operations is to blame and what could be done to fix it.

“It’s more complicated than it might seem,” Kenworthy says of the composting process. Should he order Cedar Grove to “throttle down on volume” or stop taking food waste? Those are possibilities, but whatever he does, he needs the study’s findings to build a case that can stand up in court.

Why? Because, as Kenworthy explains, “I have to assume, based on the past, that Cedar Grove will appeal.”

In the 1980s, Seattle had to rethink what it was doing with its garbage, Councilmember Conlin recalls. The city was obliged to close its own two landfills in the Kent area due to ecological concerns, including a methane leak so bad that Conlin says the gas was getting into neighbors’ basements.

Even if the city’s landfills hadn’t had that problem, it couldn’t have used them forever. That’s the thing about landfills, says WSU’s Carpenter-Boggs: They fill up, and then you either have to build a new facility or find another one elsewhere. Seattle chose the latter option, rerouting its trash to a landfill in Arlington, Oregon.

But transportation and disposal costs are expensive, Conlin says. So Seattle turned to recycling as a way to minimize what it sent to the landfill. What’s more, he says, the idea of using waste “productively” held great allure. “Reduce, reuse, recycle” became the mantra in Seattle, and everywhere else. The city set a goal of recycling 60 percent of all the waste it produced. Propelled by a burst of enthusiasm, Seattle’s recycling rate grew to 45 percent by 1995, but then started a years-long dip as “programs and participants grew a bit complacent,” according to Seattle Public Utilities spokesperson Brett Stav.

“So what else is there?” Conlin says city officials asked. “We looked at what was left in the waste stream and found two main components: organics and construction debris.” Organics they could work with. Hence, the city’s push for composting was born.

Across the nation, cities were making similar decisions. Among composting’s many boosters is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which on its website lists a hosts of eco-friendly attributes: promoting “higher yields of agricultural crops,” reducing the “need for chemical fertilizers,” even facilitating “reforestation, wetlands restoration, and habitat revitalization.” Many individuals proudly complied with such programs, and composting bins have become synonymous with environmental virtue.

But more than a decade of experience with composting on a large scale has revealed something, says Carpenter-Boggs: “It doesn’t always work.”

In Utah in May, a number of companies filed suit against a public composting facility run by the Timpanogos Special Service District, asking for $425 million in damages for what the suit says is lost business caused by the stench. And in Thurston County, a composting company called Silver Springs Organics shut down for about a year following long-standing odor complaints from surrounding residents and “huge fines” from the Olympic Region Clean Air Agency, according to the agency’s executive director, Fran McNair. The facility reopened this month with a vastly upgraded facility.

Because of such issues, the Department of Ecology plans to conduct its own study of odor problems around composting facilities, including Cedar Grove’s plant in Everett, according to Peter Christiansen, a manager based in the department’s Bellevue office. The department has also released a new set of proposed rules for the industry that would hold it responsible for controlling noxious smells.

It’s no surprise that composting facilities are having such problems, says Seana Davidson, a University of Washington engineering professor who has studied composting. Decomposition of natural matter is a weeks-long affair that relies upon microorganisms that feed upon proteins and nutrients in the material, she explains. As the organisms eat away, they also consume oxygen. When oxygen is gone, the organisms’ metabolism changes, and they release chemical compounds that are, in Davidson’s words, “fairly stinky.”

That shift into what experts call an “anaerobic” state happens even more quickly with food waste, which is especially nutrient-rich, sending the organisms into a feeding and oxygen-consuming frenzy, Davidson says. Her explanation suggests that Marysville and Maple Valley residents might be right when they blame Cedar Grove’s expansion into food waste, although company officials say such waste typically contains a lot more pizza boxes than rotting meat.

That’s likely not the entire explanation, however. As Seattle Public Utilities solid-waste director Tim Croll points out, the complaints about Cedar Grove started long before the onset of food-waste composting programs. Davidson reasons that even piles of yard waste, given the volume companies are dealing with, are at risk for smells. “Deep in those larger piles you’re going to get anaerobic pockets,” she says. If grass or leaves are wet, all the worse. They become a dense mush, leaving little room for air.

Composting companies generally work hard to alleviate smell, adds WSU’s Carpenter-Boggs. They mix up, or “turn,” the decomposing matter after a certain number of days to let air flow through. They also employ fans and pipes to push in more air, and install biological filters that absorb foul-smelling compounds. And some companies have built walls around their entire operation, despite the significant cost.

But Carpenter-Boggs says all those methods may not be entirely effective, in part because “there’s at least one point in the process where [odor] probably cannot be controlled”—i.e., when trucks are unloading just-collected batches of meat scraps, yard clippings, and overripe produce. “It’s just as if a garbage truck passed by,” she explains. The degree to which composting companies meet community standards depends in large part on the community, she continues. If there is “zero tolerance” for odor, she says, then maybe a facility in that place just isn’t possible.

On a sunny October day in Marysville’s small commercial district, a collection of boutiques and nuts-and-bolts stores just up the road from Cedar Grove, tolerance can be found. “I don’t understand what the big issue is, personally,” says Darlene Scott, proprietor of Carr’s Hardware. Of all the people griping, she asks: “Have these people never mowed their lawn before?”

Marja Oosterwyk comes out of the kitchen of Dutch Bakery, declares all her relatives “nursery people,” and dismisses the fuss with a few sentences. “I love my flower beds. I want my compost. I’m not going to make a big deal out of it,” she says of the odor. “It’s not going to smell like bacon and eggs.”

But what is no big deal to Scott and Oosterwyk is the bane of Vicki Miniken’s existence. She usually leaves open the door to her store, The Vintage Violet, and some days it literally feels as if all the fresh air has been sucked out. “It’s like you want to take a breath of air and there isn’t any,” she says. “It’ll be a solid two, three hours, and it won’t go away. It’s horrible, just horrible. I’ll get customers from out of town and they’ll all ask, ‘What’s that smell?’ “

At her home, three miles away, she says, the odor can be just as bad. On those days, she’ll open the car door as she pulls in and think, “Oh, God.” She’ll walk inside and shut the doors. “The smell needs to stop, but how do you know who needs to stop it?” she adds. While many people blame Cedar Grove, she says some also speculate about a topsoil company located on Smith Island. Her attitude, she says, is “Prove it.” So she’s open to the idea of a study.

But many of her neighbors aren’t.

On July 24, Kenworthy and other PSCAA staffers presented their plan for a study at a meeting in Marysville. Compliance manager Steve Van Slyke started off with a fairly technical presentation on odors, why they smell different to different people, how they can be measured, and so on. He didn’t get far.

“Have you ever sat out here on the flats?” a bespectacled, gray-haired man interrupted Van Slyke to ask.

The engineer paused, looking a little flustered. “I don’t sit out there,” he admitted.

“Well, you should,” the questioner said, causing the audience to erupt in laughter. He proceeded to tell Van Slyke and his boss that you don’t need a study to figure out what was causing the smell. You just need to use your nose and it will lead you straight to Cedar Grove—a theme that was repeated again and again by residents and city officials.

“You go out to a chicken farm, you know it’s a chicken farm,” said Marysville City Councilmember Steve Muller. “You don’t need technical data.” To argue otherwise, he and others present said, was a stalling tactic, on the part of both Cedar Grove and the regulatory agency. “It’s your job to do something about it, damn it,” Muller said. “So do your job!”

A couple of months later, in a City Hall conference room, Nehring elaborates on why many locals are so enraged. He harkens back to the summer of 2010, when PSCAA staffers held another meeting with a roomful of residents fed up with the smell. “Here’s what you need to do,” Nehring says the staffers told them. “You need to call and call and call.” If the agency could get enough complaints and subsequent violations, it could take action. “So that’s what we did,” Nehring says. City officials helped get the word out that when residents smelled something, they should alert PSCAA. That was the summer PSCAA had inspectors camped out in town, and issued two violations.

But rather than see any resolution to the problem, the mayor says, residents now have to wait more than a year for the outcome of a study. The mayor and other city officials oppose the study for another reason as well. PSCAA has hired a Canadian company called Odotech to provide electronic odor-measuring devices, called “e-noses,” that will be placed throughout Everett and Marysville. Odotech is a contractor of Cedar Grove, which uses e-noses in an attempt to monitor itself. In the eyes of Nehring and other city officials, the study is thus bound to be biased, an impression furthered by Cedar Grove’s enthusiastic support for the study, which it portrays as a more scientific way of apportioning blame. Indeed, Cedar Grove hired signature-gatherers this summer to go door-to-door in Marysville with a petition calling for the city to back the study.

Kenworthy, in his Seattle office, concedes that he’d rather use a company unaffiliated with Cedar Grove. But Odotech simply had the best technology to offer, he says. And he stresses, “This is our study.” PSCAA, not Odotech, will interpret the data.

What’s more, Kenworthy says that if preliminary data indicates what the problem is, “we won’t wait until the end of the study,” but request that changes be made immediately.

Cedar Grove’s Everett manager, Lawrence Klein, and several other company officials gather on a recent morning to give a tour of their 26-acre facility, reached via a long access road that takes you deep into Smith Island. It’s a funny area, both industrial and semi-wild; a variety of birds flock to the slough that hugs the island’s northern shore, and a nature trail winds through grasslands located just outside Cedar Grove’s perimeter.

Only when you drive up to the modest office building—a glorified trailer—do you see the full extent of Cedar Grove’s operation. The flattened brown mountains are but the finished product. Also onsite are multiple rows of what look like long tubes, each covered with a sturdy, greenish-tan material that resembles raincoat fabric.

The fabric is Gore, made by the same company that produces Gore-Tex, of outerwear fame. According to Klein, the material “allows breathability” but traps odors as the materials underneath—the stuff collected from compost bins, but ground and mixed with wood chips in a precise “recipe” that maximizes microorganisms—turn into compost.

He calls the Gore system the “latest and best technology,” one that Cedar Grove learned about in Europe as it was preparing to open its second facility. All of the Everett facility uses the Gore system, whereas the Maple Valley plant uses a hodgepodge of different technologies. (It started as an open-air operation, then added an indoor component and eventually incorporated Gore.)

Klein and his bosses contend that the high-tech fabric is “98 percent effective for odor mitigation.” And the Everett manager explains that its system relies not just on the fabric, but on sensors that will trigger fans if the oxygen level of the piles drops below a certain point.

Cedar Grove can’t cover everything all the time, though. The process of building a pile takes about three-and-a-half hours, Klein says, and only when fully built is a pile covered. It used to be, too, that the facility didn’t cover the “third phase” row of piles (in each of three phases, piles sit for a certain length of time and are then turned). In response to all the complaints, Cedar Grove started using Gore in the third phase about a year ago. The company also added a front to its “tipping building,” where trucks drive in and dump waste on the floor. Most recently, this fall Cedar Grove added a building to house the grinder through which those just-dumped materials are fed.

Cedar Grove says it has spent a total of more than $6 million on upgrades aimed at ameliorating odor at both sites. Yet walking around the Everett facility on this morning, one can still smell a sweetly putrid odor—intense in some spots (like the tipping building, where a load has just come in from what looks like a grocery store, dumping cardboard boxes and produce in a heap) and barely discernible in others. “We’re a composting facility. We understand we can have odors onsite,” concedes Susan Thoman, the company’s director of communications and public affairs. The company’s job, she continues, is to make sure that the fumes don’t spread.

If you judge by complaints against Cedar Grove—which recently have dropped, but still number nearly 1,000 so far in 2012 between both sites—the company has gotten better at this job, but is still a long way from mastering it. But Jerry Bartlett, Cedar Grove’s chief environmental and sustainability officer, insists you can’t judge by grievances, which are subjective. To prove his point, he cites an increase in Maple Valley complaints in 2008 despite an improvement—enclosing its grinder—that should have reduced odors. His explanation: A King County landfill that sits adjacent to the composting plant was really causing the odor.

In 2008, the county began a program to capture methane released from the Cedar Hills landfill and turn it into energy. The landfill has a history of causing smells. The 1997 citizens’ lawsuit named Cedar Hills as a culprit as well as Cedar Grove, and the county paid $16.5 million as its share of the settlement. Yet Kevin Kiernan, assistant director of the county’s solid-waste division, says that the landfill has dramatically changed its operations. Today, six inches of topsoil cover garbage to suppress smells, according to Kiernan. He also calls the energy-producing program a “tightly controlled operation” that siphons gas through pipes and burns off “odor-causing constituents” with a “high-temperature flare.”

In the Everett area, Bartlett finds other entities to blame for complaints, everything from a wood-chip operation on the other end of Smith Island to the tideland itself—450 acres of “dying vegetation,” as he calls it. It’s not that Bartlett holds Cedar Grove completely blameless; rather, he says, “We believe we’re part of the problem. We don’t think we’re all of the problem.” He may have a point: Even Carpenter-Boggs, who recognizes the problems composting companies can cause, says they’re “sort of an easy target.”

Often, though, it sounds as though Cedar Grove thinks it is but a very small part of the problem.

Cedar Grove decided to do its own inspections in 2010. It hired a company called Environmental Reporting, Monitoring and Solutions (ERMAS), and encouraged local residents to call its contractor when they smelled something. ERMAS trained its employees to use an “odor wheel” that took inspiration from “refined” wine-tasting adjectives, according to a presentation later submitted to Snohomish County officials. ERMAS’ odor wheel included “dank basement,” “wet tea bag,” and “sour pipe tobacco.” In addition to investigating complaints, ERMAS inspectors were charged with writing daily reports on what they smelled and how the wind was blowing, data that the company then used to analyze complaints that separately came in to PSCAA.

In a report on the Everett facility at the end of that year, Cedar Grove’s contractor determined that the composting company was responsible for almost none of the odors in the area. Instead, the report blamed such entities as the topsoil company on Smith Island, a landfill on the nearby Tulalip Indian Reservation that has been capped for decades, and Marysville’s sewage-treatment plant, which ERMAS called the “largest single odor source”—a charge later repeated in Cedar Grove’s lawsuit against the city. Dead animals, skunks, and open garbage cans also came in for blame.

The report earned Cedar Grove the enmity of the Tulalips, who didn’t care for the finger pointed in their direction. “Cedar Grove took the approach that they were going to just attack,” says Steve Gobin, general manager of Quil Ceda Village on the Tulalip Reservation. “For me, it’s personal.”

To illustrate why, he hops into his truck and drives to his home, situated on 260 feet of waterfront along the slough, where he used to fly-fish almost every day before or after work. Because of the smell, he no longer does. Nehring says the presentation also served as a “breaking point” for many Marysville citizens.

On a recent day, Nehring and his public-works director, Kevin Nielsen, offer a somewhat stealthy olfactory tour of the area. Nielsen takes his personal car rather than his city one so as not to be recognized by Cedar Grove.

The first stop, though, is the sewage-treatment plant. The heart of the facility is a big lagoon where the wastewater, after it has been oxidized and colonized by excrement-eating bugs, collects before further treatment. Despite its function, the lagoon is a tranquil site. Birds hover over it, just as they do over the slough right across the road. At City Hall and on the ride over, Nielsen and Nehring expound upon why they believe the facility is not to blame for the local stench. For one thing, the problem has arisen only in recent years, while the sewage plant has been around for roughly 50. For another, while they concede that the facility gives off a slight earthy smell at times, they say it’s different from what Nehring calls “the very specific odor” that has been plaguing the region.

In contrast to the multitude of complaints about Cedar Grove, only eight people have complained to PSCAA about the Marysville facility since 2001.

Yet after Nielsen parks the car at the plant and gets out, he immediately sniffs something. “Remember that smell,” he says. It’s the same sweet, putrid smell everybody talks about—one he and the mayor say is coming not from the plant in front of them but from Cedar Grove, just across the slough. The smell does seem to disappear as you walk closer to the lagoon.

On the trail of the odor, they hop into the car and drive to Cedar Grove. On the nature trail just outside the composting compound, they breathe in and smell nothing but the marshy air. If the smell started here, it has blown away. For the next few hours at least, Marysville will be able to breathe.

Marysville mayor Jon Nehring (right) and his public-works director Kevin Nielsen in front of Marysville's wastewater-treatment plant, which Cedar Grove blames for the smell.

Marysville mayor Jon Nehring (right) and his public-works director Kevin Nielsen in front of Marysville’s wastewater-treatment plant, which Cedar Grove blames for the smell.