03/07/2012 02:53 pm ET Updated May 07, 2012

California Composting: Growth Of Industry Strains Oversight

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By William Harless

California's next big step in recycling - composting its meat scraps, broken egg shells, coffee grounds and other detritus of eating - is straining the state's ability to effectively manage the ever-growing and sometimes dangerous industry.

In October, 16-year-old Armando Ramirez and his brother, 22-year-old Heladio Ramirez, died of poisoning after Armando had been cleaning out a stormwater drain at the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery composting facility near Bakersfield. Heladio had gone down a hole and into the drain to rescue his brother.

The two undocumented workers inhaled hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas that sewage can generate. According to county documents, the facility near Lamont used discharged sewage water from an adjacent utility district to moisten its composting piles.

The brothers' mother, Faustina Ramirez, filed a lawsuit in January against Community Recycling & Resource Recovery seeking at least $25,000 in damages, including funeral and burial expenses. She said she believes the company should have hired a professional service to clean the stormwater drains.

"What happened with my children was negligence - because they didn't give them protection and because they knew what was going on in that site, and they sent them," she said in an interview.

The private facility where the brothers were working is the largest of the more than 97 active, permitted composting facilities scattered across the state. Despite years of land-use violations, trash complaints, an order by Kern County to cease operations and a $2.3 million fine, a judge has allowed the Community Recycling site to remain open as it battles the county in court.

The facility had been taking food scraps from Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and other Southern California cities, but Los Angeles stopped sending residential food scraps to Community Recycling in 2010, when Kern County informed the city that the company didn't have a permit to accept the scraps.

After the deaths of the Ramirez brothers, Los Angeles then suspended a roughly $5 million yearly contract with Community Recycling for disposing yard trimmings, which also were dumped in Kern County.

Other California cities have faced problems with the regulation of composting operations. At least four composting facilities other than Community Recycling have been cited for serious health and safety violations between 2006 and 2008, according to federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration documents. The state agency Cal/OSHA, however, does not maintain a compilation of workplace injuries specific to composting facilities because the agency does not classify the industry as high-hazard.

Mark Oldfield, a spokesman for the state Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, better known as CalRecycle, said none of the local agencies charged with enforcing state waste regulations have ever shut down a composting facility, but one facility in San Luis Obispo voluntarily shuttered when it could not resolve its odor problems.

In 2010, Solano County ordered the city of San Francisco's private compost hauler, Recology, to cut roughly in half the amount of compost it sends to a facility in Vacaville. Nearby residents had complained of a stench, despite advanced technology at the plant to reduce odors: vacuums that suck air from above covered piles of composting material. Recology says the smell was the result of an initial, faulty installation of the technology, which the company says it has corrected.

In San Francisco, trucks now pick up about 570 tons of food waste daily from homes, restaurants, apartment buildings, grocery stores and other facilities and haul much of it about 75 miles away to two facilities south of the city, in Modesto and Gilroy. Some of it still goes to Vacaville.

Recology said it has taken steps to improve the smell at the Vacaville facility, but county officials say some odor still exists. According to Solano County staff, in 2011, the county health department received 75 complaints from 15 households about odor at the site, though not all of the complaints were verified.

Jack Macy, a waste coordinator for the City and County of San Francisco, said, however, he is concerned that just a few odor complaints could so significantly affect the operation.

"That honestly is a real problem with the way that compost facilities are regulated in the state ... the fact that you can have somebody complain and effectively shut down or roll back a facility," Macy said in an interview. "I've been on that site many times over the years, and there's less odor at that site now than there has been in the past, and if you're standing at the site, it barely smells."

In the southern Central Valley, the situation was more hazardous.

Drive east along a desolate strip of two-lane road about 20 miles south of central Bakersfield, and odors of garbage, sewage and cow manure hit you hard. Trash litters the road, the air is hazy, and the odors vary from a strong acidic smell to something like rancid beer. Bordering the road are grape fields, two dairies, property belonging to a local sewage treatment agency, and the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery facility.

Armando Ramirez was cleaning out a stormwater drain with a high-pressure hose on Oct. 12 when he was overcome with fumes and lost consciousness. Trying to rescue his brother from the drain, Heladio Ramirez then lost consciousness. Armando died that day, and his brother was taken off life support a few days later.

Armando died in an industrial accident, making a civil suit for his death difficult to win under the law. Faustina Ramirez's lawsuit against Community Recycling only mentions the older brother, Heladio, because he worked for A & B Harvesting. Her lawsuit argues that Community Recycling created unsafe conditions for Heladio while he was working on Community Recycling property.

Faustina Ramirez was in King City, where she worked in celery and lettuce fields, when she received the call that her children had been injured.

"I was screaming. I didn't even know what to do. I wanted to just start running to get here, and it was impossible to get here," said Faustina Ramirez, speaking at the office of Salvador Partida, a tax preparer and activist in Arvin, near the Community Recycling facility. Partida's office is a meeting ground for many of the Mexican immigrants who live in the area and work in agricultural fields.

Faustina Ramirez moved to the United States from Mexico 10 years ago. Her sons crossed the border two years ago. She has one other child, an 18-year-old daughter, and a granddaughter who still live in Mexico. In Oaxaca, before she moved to the U.S. to earn more money, Faustina Ramirez made hand-woven baskets.

In 1993, when the Community Recycling facility opened, the company had to go through a California Environmental Quality Act review and submitted paperwork indicating the composting facility would cause no significant environmental harm, according to Charles Collins, deputy county counsel in Kern County. An environmental impact report was finally ordered in 2010.

No government agency was regularly monitoring the facility for hydrogen sulfide, the gas that killed the Ramirez brothers. State investigators have yet to release their findings about how exactly the hydrogen sulfide was generated.

Lorelei Oviatt, director of the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department, told the county's Board of Supervisors at a meeting after the brothers' deaths that "our files do not show any evidence of a detailed analysis of the possibilities of these types of gases. Therefore, we would not have made any recommendations, and your board would not have knowledge of them."

Cal/OSHA, which oversees workplace safety regulations in California, issued an order barring entry into the drain soon after the brothers died, but Community Recycling then hired a professional company to clean the drain in violation of the order, according to Cal/OSHA.

Ellen Widess, chief of Cal/OSHA, which is investigating the Ramirezes' deaths, said the 190-acre Community Recycling site wasn't on the agency's radar. "This place was unknown to us," Widess said in a phone interview.

Community Recycling is the sister company of Crown Disposal, based in Sun Valley. According to Beverly Hills officials, Crown Disposal has a $5.5 million waste disposal contract with that city. Los Angeles has a three-year, $1 million annual contract with Crown Disposal for removal of construction debris from public projects and, until November, maintained a contract with Community Recycling for yard waste disposal.

Crown Disposal and Community Recycling representatives did not return calls for comment.

The deaths of the Ramirez brothers highlight the dangerous side of the waste industry. In 2009, three men died of hydrogen sulfide poisoning at a recycling facility in New York that also had been cited by OSHA for prior violations.

David Utterback, a coordinator for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, which makes recommendations for worker safety regulations for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, lamented that even facilities with prior violations are allowed to operate with potential substantial hazards.

"OSHA has far too few inspectors to keep on top of each facility," Utterback said. "It does prioritize inspections, and re-inspection of serious offenders is a factor. Still, that is likely to occur months to a few years after the initial inspection unless they receive a complaint."

At the Community Recycling site where the Ramirez brothers died, other problems have arisen over the past few years.

In early 2008, Kern County Code Compliance staff found that "residual plastic bags and wrapping material leftover from the composting process had blown around the site and onto adjacent sites and agricultural crops," according to a county report. "The perimeter screening fence had also accumulated excessive amounts of trash and debris."

According to Mark de Bie, deputy director of the waste permitting, compliance and mitigation division of CalRecycle, fully permitted composting facilities such as Community Recycling are subject to monthly, unannounced inspections by the local waste enforcement agency - in this case, Kern County's Environmental Health Services Division - to ensure they aren't accepting hazardous waste and other inappropriate materials. The state's Integrated Waste Management Act doesn't classify plastic or approved compostable material as hazardous.

But Denny Larson, executive director of the El Cerrito environmental group Global Community Monitor, said he believes composting facilities, in general, are under-regulated.

"It appears that it's a very good environmentally friendly thing - the compost," Larson said. But, "I just don't think we really know what's really brought into these facilities. ... They take anything from anybody from anywhere."

Residents continue to complain about plastic litter from the site. And an ill wind still runs through Kern County. Faustina Ramirez said she thinks of her children when, on warm days, a foul stench enters the trailer where she lives as she awaits the results of her lawsuit against the company.

"No one could stand that smell, that stench," she said. And her children "were right there. Can you imagine how they suffered?"

This story was produced as part of a collaboration between California Watch, part of the independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting, and the Investigative Reporting Project at UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Andrea Valencia translated for this piece. Find more California Watch stories here.