Like a foul odor carried on a breeze, the rumor started creeping into Sunlight Waters last winter. No one in the small Kittitas County community just east of Cle Elum knew exactly where the rumor came from, just that it brought news of a coming scourge. Then Carl Nelson, who moved to the area from Seattle in 2008, got confirmation from a neighbor who’d been contracted to clear a 190-acre parcel of land: -PacifiClean Environmental, a Spokane-based developer, planned to build a massive composting facility two miles away to handle more than 100,000 tons of Seattle’s organic waste per year. That’s when Nelson started raising a ruckus. “I didn’t have an option,” he says. “I had to fight to protect my home.”

Sound familiar? As Nelson and the people of Sunlight Waters were mobilizing against PacifiClean, others were bringing legal action against Cedar Grove, the company that had handled Seattle’s composting for more than two decades. Two lawsuits claimed the smell of rotting organic waste emanating from its facilities in Maple Valley and Marysville was unbearable for those who lived nearby. And those suits, still pending, came on the heels of two others alleging the same thing. 

Actually, some version of the same smelly fight has been swirling around compost since 1989, when Seattle Public Utilities started offering curbside yard waste collection for $2 a month. Back then, SPU accepted only grass clippings, twigs, and the like—while gently reminding homeowners that yard waste didn’t include inorganic trash from the yard, like old lawn chairs and hoses. But neighbors of Cedar Grove’s first plant, in Maple Valley, complained immediately about the pungently sweet odor. 

Despite spending millions on new methods for mitigating the aroma, the company was hit with one fine (or lawsuit) after another. And complaints increased in 2005 and again in 2009, when Cedar Grove started accepting vegetable scraps and then meat and dairy waste, respectively. The burden became too great for the company and it opted to not renew its contract with Seattle, which cleared the way for PacifiClean to take the responsibility in 2014.

Conspicuously absent from the brouhaha are Seattleites, who in 2011 sent 125,000 tons of yard and food scraps to Cedar Grove’s plants. Diverting that much waste from a landfill is an unquestionably positive step in sustainability, but what of the people downstream? “It raises an environmental-justice red flag,” says Lauren Hartzell Nichols, an environmental ethics professor at UW. “I worry about pushing the waste out of our yard and saying, ‘Someone else should deal with this smelly problem.’ ”

That someone else won’t be the people of Sunlight Waters because Nelson and his crew fought PacifiClean until it backed down in March. But the composter’s general manager, Larry Condon, says the plant will still land in Kittitas—where, he’s still not sure—which prompts Nelson to call his victory a partial one. “The fact that it’s going down the road to somebody else’s neighborhood is no great comfort to me,” he says. Chances are, that neighborhood (or the next one) just won’t have enough NIMBYs to stop construction. “It doesn’t matter what the laws are, as long as you can be louder and more inflammatory,” says Todd Myers, of Washington Policy Center, an environmental think tank. “If that’s the standard for how we make these decisions, we’re doomed.” In other words, until green-leaning municipalities like Seattle really address the consequences of sustainability, the hot (and rotting) potato will just keep getting passed along.


Published: June 2013