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
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
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
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
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
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 Program at
UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism.
Andrea Valencia translated for this