Alleging that a private contractor cost the county hundreds of thousands of dollars and contributed to the foul odor around the county's landfill, Prince William officials filed a lawsuit yesterday seeking reimbursement from the former operator of the county's composting facility.

The lawsuit, filed in Prince William County Circuit Court on behalf of the Board of County Supervisors, claims that the Ohio-based Scotts Co. mismanaged a 20,000-ton compost facility at the Independent Hill landfill during its five-year contract, which ended in January. Assistant County Attorney Joseph L. Howard Jr. said Prince William had to spend $300,000 to process "unsuitable material" found in the compost piles after Scotts vacated the property.

The county also is seeking reimbursement for firefighting costs associated with a major blaze at the landfill in November 1998. County officials allege that Scotts's operation of the facility regularly fouled the air over Independent Hill neighborhoods, an effect, they say, of the company's failure to properly aerate the piles of decomposing grass, leaves and other yard waste.

Company officials said yesterday that the lawsuit is merely an attempt by the county to hold back payments owed to the company and that it stems from a battle with the Board of County Supervisors about a $150,000 bill for contracted services.

"They've really been fishing for something to hold back the monies they owe the company," said Donna Marhevka, Scotts's in-house counsel. "We feel like we've been stonewalled, and we feel this has been in bad faith. The facility was operated properly, and the county has refused to pay for services we provided."

Scotts began operating the compost facility in 1993, part of a contract to collect, store and then sell composted material. The county paid Scotts to operate the facility, and the company in turn was given the rights to sell the product as a bulk raw material to local contractors and county residents.

Neighbors of the landfill have regularly complained to county officials of the oft-fouled air sent into their neighborhoods, especially pungent in the summer, when heat expedites decomposition and stagnant air causes odors to linger.

Marhevka said Scotts had not heard any complaints before the termination of the contract in January, part of the company's plan to phase out its composting facilities across the nation. Scotts, based in Marysville, Ohio, is one of the world's leading suppliers of consumer products for do-it-yourself lawn and garden care, with such brand-name products as the Miracle-Gro line of potting soils and plant foods.

Howard said that the lawsuit primarily stems from the discovery of large amounts of unprocessed materials that resided within the compost piles--such as blocks of concrete, logs, tree branches and bags filled with leaves. The lawsuit alleges that Scotts intentionally buried such items at the bottom of the piles and then covered them with processed, ground-up material.

"After the contract was completed, that's when the most severe situation was uncovered," Howard said. "The piles on the surface looked like they had been properly ground, but once the piles were dug into to turn the material to aerate it, that's when they found these large bulky items. That was when it was determined that a new contractor would be needed to grind up the material properly."

Marhevka said that Scotts has been engaged in a heated administrative battle with the county in an attempt to obtain payment and that the next logical step would be taking the fight to the legal system.

"Scotts was never contracted to grind metal and stumps and pieces of trash," she said. "We believe those items have been rightfully withheld from grinding because they would damage the equipment. We could similarly allege that it was not part of the contract for the county to be dropping [those items] off with us in the first place."