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Utah County residents raise stink in lawsuit over composting facility

Published September 26, 2012 5:14 pm

Court • Smell from Timpanogos Special Service District has caused illnesses, diminished property values, lawsuit claims.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Pleasant Grove business owner Jim Ferrin won't open his office window for fresh air and is shy about telling people where he spends his work days.

Possible clients who learn that Ferrin's financial planning business is located a mile east of the Timpanogos Special Service District's composting facility are quick to offer an opinion about the area: "Oh, that is where it stinks."

The stench coming from piles of heated human waste at the TSSD's composing facility has stirred up enough controversy that Ferrin, a member of Citizens for Clean Air and about 45 others including two cities, numerous businesses, and property owners, filed a lawsuit this month in 4th District Court against both the district and Utah County.

The plaintiffs are seeking more than $350 million from the government, claiming multiple violations by TSSD and the county, including allegations that the entities are a public nuisance, private nuisance, negligence and inverse condemnation.

The putrid smell has diminished property values to the tune of more than $75 million, the lawsuit claims. Not only does it stink, the smell has made people sick, the suit alleges.

But Jon Adams, district manager of TSSD, said the facility isn't in the wrong and is in compliance with its permit.

The TSSD began composting in 1994 on a small scale, but expanded its operation two years later. Previously farmers took the sewage and used it on their fields, or some was taken to the landfill. Now, all the material is composted.

The lawsuit demands that the county remove composting, but Adams said TSSD and the county will likely fight that idea.

"Obviously, there are some things [in the suit] we don't agree with," he said. "To our knowledge we are in full compliance with the permit."

Adams said TSSD has undergone a "significant investment" to reduce the odor over the years, including creating a tarp system to cover the compost and installing bio filters to scrub the air of the smell in a concrete box before it is released.

Those efforts, however, aren't enough to contain the smell, according to plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

American Fork city administrator Craig Whitehead said his city joined the suit to because the compost has become an economic development issue. Businesses don't want to relocate to an area where customers gag when going outside, he said.

"If we are losing business to neighboring cities because of that we want to solve the problems," said Whitehead.

Mark Robinson, owner of North Pointe business park in American Fork, describes the stench as something comparable to a "construction outhouse."

He bought the American Fork property west of the freeway near 800 East 1180 South in 2000 and built a couple of buildings on it before he first noticed the smell. He learned TSSD was mixing compost at night and had invested a tarp system in covering the smell. It was at that point Robinson realized the construction location he picked was an "error of epic proportions" and worried about the viability of future business in the area.

Robinson's concerns are shared by Pleasant Grove City Administrator Scott Darrington. He said Adobe recently considered Pleasant Grove as a site for its expanding business in Utah County, but passed, telling the city its odors were an issue.

"That causes us heartburn when people say 'we like the site, but what about this odor, what are you going to do about it?'" Darrington said. "It is frustrating to us, because it is something we cannot control."

The city and stake holders have come together to resolve the issue, but have never been able to reach an agreement.

Ferrin and others say the composting facility emits a scent far worse than the average farm or cow manure smell.

"What I discovered here is that when it stinks here — it really stinks," Ferrin said who is from Lindon, but spends his work days in Pleasant Grove, a mile east of the TSSD by the north end of Utah Lake.

The strong odor in the near vicinity "regularly causes physical illness among residents, workers and visitors," said Ferrin and other plaintiffs in the lawsuit, according to court documents. The smell has forced a number of people to take sick days, close their office, and cancel meetings or events because of the "unpleasant nature of the odor," the lawsuit states.

The TSSD has been around for longer than most businesses filing the current lawsuit. But Utah County since 2008 has allowed for changes at the facility, including composting of hundreds of tons of humanure, which is green waste mixed with human waste sludge. The waste is stored and mixed in long rows about the length of a football field. The cooking and mixing of the compost creates a "substantial, obnoxious and foul odor," according to court records.

The TSSD disposed of some waste in a landfill in the past, but abandoned that plan after deeming it too costly, In 2010, the city obtained a permit to discard storm water and biologically treated human waste solids into Utah Lake.

Ferrin said he's hopeful the lawsuit will put a stop to composting in Pleasant Grove.

"They shouldn't be composting at the side of the freeway at what should be multi-million dollar business park," Ferrin said adding that "it is destroying Pleasant Grove."

cimaron@sltrib.com

Twitter: @CimCity