BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
County officials engaged in a court fight with a Lamont composting facility say they have identified several alternatives for disposing of more than 1 million gallons a day of sewer water, a contention that strikes at the heart of claims that closing the business would endanger nearby residents.
In court papers filed in advance of a hearing set to resume Monday, county officials state that the city of Bakersfield has offered to accept the sewer water for up to five years. Other options listed in the filing would divert the effluent onto nearby dairy land, agricultural fields owned by the composting facility's owner or "percolation ponds" that would allow the waste to seep into the ground.
Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc., joined in its lawsuit by the Lamont Public Utility District, counters that these "illusory" options either are not feasible or would require investments totaling more than $8 million, thereby doubling or tripling rates paid by the district's customers.
The outcome of Monday's hearing -- and whether the company can continue to operate -- could hinge on the merits of each party's arguments regarding what can and cannot be done with the effluent.
The Kern County Superior Court judge in the case, J. Eric Bradshaw, issued a temporary stay Nov. 29 allowing the composter to continue operating despite an emphatic decision by county supervisors Nov. 15 to close the facility.
The case touches on various issues related to Community Recycling's controversial history, not the least of which is the death of two brothers who apparently inhaled toxic gases at the facility Oct. 12. That incident sparked a community uproar, as well as continuing investigations by Cal-OSHA and the state labor commissioner.
Also discussed in seven volumes of legal filings now before the judge are the more than 100 jobs that would be lost if Community Recycling closes. In addition, the facility takes in rotten produce, yard trimmings and other waste from across the state and Nevada; private companies and municipalities that contract with the company would have to find alternative destinations for their waste.
But probably the most pressing argument by the company and the sewer district is their insistence that the effluent would present an imminent threat to public health if the facility were shut down.
Community Recycling has accepted Lamont's sewer water since 1993. It uses the waste to irrigate piles of compost that is later sold to farmers as a soil amendment.
The search for alternatives
Larry Peake, attorney for the utility district, warned that without the company there to accept the effluent, waste would overflow onto nearby highways within 46 days, creating a threat to public health.
He said the district has searched across a three-mile radius for an alternative home for the effluent.
"There's no place that's been found," he said.
County staff beg to differ.
Within the case file is a declaration by the county's public health director, Matt Constantine, laying out four choices for the sewer district.
The city of Bakersfield owns land adjacent to the utility district that it uses to dispose of its own effluent. Constantine indicated that the city has offered to accept all of Lamont's sewer water for up to five years, though it would have to be piped about four miles to a distribution system.
Community Recycling and the utility district argue that construction of the necessary pipeline would cost millions of dollars "even if difficult environmental approval could be obtained." And either way, they contend, using Bakersfield's effluent system would represent only a temporary solution. They also state that Bakersfield officials have said the city operation cannot accept Lamont's waste because its salt content is too high.
A second alternative Constantine listed is for the utility to divert its effluent onto land adjacent to the district owned by H&P Dairy. He stated that H&P handles a large amount of dairy effluent, and that a consultant for the company has identified 400 acres that could accept Lamont's waste. Constantine added that staff of the Regional Water Quality Control Board have approved of this option as a long-term solution for Lamont's effluent.
Attorneys for Community Recycling and the sewer district directly contradict Constantine on this option. They state in legal filings that H&P "has advised the (district) that it is not willing to accept any waste water from the (district) for any period of time."
The third option in Constantine's declaration is for Community Recycling's owner, the T&R Fry Family Trust, to take the effluent onto 640 acres it owns adjacent to the composting facility.
"There are currently vineyards on this property but these could be removed and planted with silage crops," the health official's declaration states. Silage crops, such as alfalfa, absorb large volumes of fluid and are used for feeding animals.
But the composting company and the sewer district counter that the family trust "is neither contractually required" to accept the effluent, nor is the option feasible. They note that no pipeline exists that would transport the waste to the trust's property.
The final option raised by Constantine -- percolation ponds -- would allow the effluent to seep slowly into the ground. He states that the water quality control board "has indicated that this is a viable option and should be considered."
But according to the company and the utility, this option is both impractical and irresponsible. Not only is there no money to build percolation ponds, but they would "severely degrade" the area's groundwater. What's more, they wrote that there is no reason to believe the utility district could get regulatory approval to install them.
While the judge may rule Monday on whether to lift his temporary stay on the county's closure order, both sides in the lawsuit say the case could take many months to resolve.