In 2021, people living near King County’s only landfill asked officials why the smell from the massive pit of garbage was worsening, making their sinuses burn and their heads hurt. Officials didn’t give an answer at the time, but a new federal lawsuit may contain a few clues. 

The suit alleges the County failed to contain the landfill’s greenhouse gas emissions, which, along with hurting public health and polluting the environment, may end up costing the County millions of dollars.

The Cedar Hills Regional Landfill lies between Renton and Maple Valley. The dump covers about 920 acres, which works out to more than half the size of downtown Seattle. King County has promised to close the landfill by 2040, though that deadline has moved several times. 

In 2008, the County contracted with Bio Energy Washington (BEW) to take the methane and CO2 created by the decomposing debris and turn it into pipeline-quality biofuel and electric power. BEW sells the fuel to Puget Sound Energy, which, when BEW operates near capacity, can power about 19,000 homes. 

However, on April 7, BEW field a lawsuit against the County in the U.S. District Court in Western Washington for breach of contract. The County’s shipments of landfill gas had dwindled since November 2019, and the gas the County did send was low quality, according to the lawsuit. BEW’s attorneys estimate the reduced amounts of gas lost the company about $10 million in revenue between 2020 and 2022. The County also lost about $2 million because BEW gives us some of its profits. 

In BEW’s lawsuit, the company asked the County to pay for the revenue losses, pay $300,000 per month for the length of the case, and cut in half any fees BEW owed the county during that time. And, obviously, BEW wants the County to improve operations and start sending more gas. 

In a May response to BEW’s lawsuit, the County denied most of the accusations, especially related to the landfill’s operational details. The County asked the court to dismiss BEW’s lawsuit. At a community meeting in March, the County acknowledged the collection of landfill gas had decreased.

Rainwater and Trash Juice

A handy infographic on the County’s website explains BEW’s relationship to the landfill. Gas from the landfill is shuttled to BEW’s facility through a series of wells, pipelines, and compressors. The gas mixture must be just right, with not too much nitrogen, not too much oxygen, and plenty of methane.

But the gas collection wells can become blocked with a mixture of rainwater and liquids from the garbage. When the wells are blocked, gas escapes in other ways, putting pressure on the pipes. Sometimes gas becomes trapped and causes a “blow out.”

“Literally a small explosion to relieve the gas pressure,” BEW’s complaint read.

At the March community meeting, the County acknowledged it was struggling to remove the liquid from the wells.

The County Disputes Other Claims

Landfill gas can go one of three places: the BEW plant, the County’s flares–which burn off the excess gas–or into the atmosphere. When the plant shuts down, those options narrow.

The contract between BEW and the County included environmental and public health obligations. When the landfill’s series of wells and pipes carried less gas to BEW, County data showed the landfill’s “fugitive methane emissions” increased by about 66% from 2018 to 2020, according to court documents. 

Both BEW and the County lose millions of dollars when the landfill gas is not contained, BEW attorneys argued. Plus, BEW’s work is “an absolutely critical component” of the County’s goal to meet zero carbon emissions. “However, the County’s poor management of the gas collection system has directly contributed to higher carbon outputs into the atmosphere,” the lawsuit said. 

The County denied that allegation.

In 2021, BEW found the landfill released a substantial amount of methane into the atmosphere. The company brought the readings to the County. The County asked BEW not to share the report further as the findings might be “misconstrued,” according to court documents. 

In the County’s May response to BEW’s lawsuit, the County acknowledged asking BEW to refrain from sharing the report.