BY WILLIAM HARLESS California Watch
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.
Perhaps the most striking examples are the October deaths in Lamont of 16-year-old Armando Ramirez and his brother, 22-year-old Heladio Ramirez. Both apparently inhaled fatal doses of toxic gases after Armando had been cleaning out a stormwater drain at the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. composting facility. Heladio had gone down a hole and into the drain to rescue his brother.
"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," said the brothers' mother, Faustina Ramirez.
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 county supervisors 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.
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 and complaints persist.
Jack Macy, a waste coordinator for the City and County of San Francisco, expressed concern 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. "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."
The situation in Kern 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 facility.
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. 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.
County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt told the 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.
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."
Mark de Bie, deputy director of the waste permitting, compliance and mitigation division of CalRecycle, said fully permitted composting facilities such as Community Recycling are subject to monthly, unannounced inspections by the local waste enforcement agency -- in this case, Kern'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."
Andrea Valencia translated for this article. Californian staff writer John Cox contributed.
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.