What could be more natural, more environmentally friendly, than a compost pile?
Little in the way of toxins. Nothing radioactive. An intelligent and sustainable path to reusing old trees, yard waste and the like by recycling them into useful mulch and fertilizer.
Tell that to the exhausted firefighters from the South Salt Lake Fire Department. And the many colleagues from 10 other brigades who answered the call at the Diamond Tree Experts’ Green Waste Disposal site twice in the past two weeks.
And tell it to a few of Diamond’s neighbors — including the test lab that suffered upwards of a half million dollars in damage and the animal boarding business that came within minutes of having to evacuate some 60 dogs that were caged in the path of the blaze.
No one is accusing the owners of Diamond Tree Experts of deliberately creating a hazardous waste site. That business clearly derives no benefit from its giant compost pile spontaneously combusting into a smoky inferno.
But South Salt Lake city officials are correct to head back to the drawing board in search of a way to prevent such dangerous events from occurring in the future.
As a straight land use matter, there probably isn’t much that the South Salt Lake City Council or its staff can do. The Diamond Tree facility at 3645 S. 500 West was permitted in 2006. Then, its operations met the definition of the light industrial use for which the property was, and is, zoned. And so, even though zoning definitions have changed since then, the acre-wide mulch pile is grandfathered in as a property right.
But the facilities’ neighbors have property rights, too. Including the right to not live in fear that everything they’ve worked for is likely to go up in smoldering smoke because a neighboring business couldn’t control its own operations.
That’s why the council is set to meet Wednesday evening with an eye toward amending its fire code or some other part of its laws to put greater expectations and responsibility on the shoulders of the composting operation.
That could include limiting the size of the compost pile or passing a code amendment that makes it clear that the owner of such operations will be financially responsible for damage to neighboring property.
The point for Diamond Tree Experts is not significantly different from the approach local governments should take toward any business.
Even a law-abiding business may have to be limited when their old activities present a new danger.