Alarming: It takes a pitbull to be a watchdog these days

A recent experience for a story I’ve been working on for many weeks really showed me how messed up government is. It’s the worst I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been working as a journalist most of the time since 1979.

About a decade ago Olympic Organics removed a tipping building with biofilters from its operation in Kingston. It was the system used to control odors when the business first received its permit from Puget Sound Clean Air Agency in 2008. It had not been using that building much for years, having switched to a different process. The business apparently never told any of the government agencies that provide oversight about the change.

Kitsap Public Health District noted the change in an inspection and told the business it should let PSCAA know about it. But nothing was ever done.

State law WAC 173-350-710 requires approval from oversight agencies.

“The state law says in part that the jurisdictional health department (in this case KPHD) must file approved modifications with the appropriate regional office. (Otherwise) no solid waste permit modification will be considered valid. The modification must include a description, reasons for it and a list of impacts, along with showing the change would continue compliance. Permit modifications are required for any change to an operation, design, site or processing capacity, performance or monitoring of a permitted facility.”

Steve Brown of KPHD said it does not have to follow that state law, but would not explain why. But after two weeks and some emails to other KPHD officials he finally got back to me. He said the law does not apply to KPHD because it has to do with regulatory design and operating. The emission control features are required by the permitting air authority, in this case PSCAA.

Brown also wrote: “As far as we are aware, dust and nuisance odors have not been an ongoing issue at Olympic Organics, as neither has been noted as a problem during our recent quarterly inspections. Nor have we received many (or any- to my knowledge) complaints of odors at Olympic Organics.”

That’s beside the point because that has nothing to do with what the law says, but more on that later.

Fast forward to December of 2022. Olympic Organics again made a major change, this time under a different owner, without seeking government approval. It added five more bins to its compost operation. The business would not talk to us and explain why.

Again, state law requires such major changes to receive government approval. On its own website, the PSCAA explains that such major changes need government approval. “A permit is required of any new or modified air pollution source prior to construction or making modifications that affect air contaminants emitted,” it says.

Again, PSCAA did nothing. KPHD said the requirement did not need to be met because the change wasn’t going to lead to an increase in production, but that’s questionable. Why else would it increase its number of bins?

So I contacted the Department of Ecology to see if it could help. I was told it doesn’t have jurisdiction and that a system that specific would not have to follow that law, but also did not explain why. So I contacted the state Attorney General’s Office. Surely they would force the government bodies to do their jobs. But again, I was told it doesn’t have jurisdiction. It recommended I contact the governing boards.

So I emailed Becky Erickson, mayor of Poulsbo, who is head of the KPHD board. No response. For the PSCAA I contacted Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler —no response — and County Commissioner Katie Walters, but she passed the information on to new County Commissioner Christine Rolfes. She referred me to Christine Cooley, head of the PSCAA. I had already contacted her. No response.

Walters also said she would have Eric Baker, interim county administrator who has served as staff liaison to the PSCAA, contact me as he may have more historical knowledge of the organization’s relationship with Olympic Organics. Still waiting for that callback.

I have filed numerous Public Records Requests to try to find out information. The PSCAA says it only has on file the original permit from 2008. No notice of construction amendments were ever filed. There likely should have been two, due to the major changes already mentioned.

I then sent a request to the county to see if a building permit for the construction was ever filed. In an absurd response, it said if I didn’t get them the address of Olympic Organics by the next day it would close my request. What if I had been off that day? Anyway, it took me a minute on Google to get the address and send it back to them. They could have looked up the address themselves in less time. Didn’t matter, though. They soon responded no building permit had been given.

Steven Van Slyke, compliance director for the PSCAA, would not say if Olympic Organics should have faced sanctions due to the removal of the tipping building or construction of the five bays.

But yet another state law says: “It is unlawful to replace or substantially alter control equipment installed at an existing source.”

These agencies seem to be taking the stance of “no harm no foul.” But actions were taken that should have been regulated. We give governments a lot of our money to do their job. It’s like not enforcing traffic laws. It doesn’t hurt anyone until it does.

It seems like a business did something contrary to state law twice, a state and local agency did not hold it accountable, and now no one wants to hold the business or the state and local agencies accountable.

The agencies seem to be looking for loopholes in the law rather than enforcing the intent of the law — which is there to protect the environment. The end does not justify the means.

Steven Powell is editor of the five Kitsap News Group newspapers, including the Bainbridge Island Review.