Business

Thursday, Nov 17 2011 07:58 PM

Composting facility's closure leaves grocers without waste pickups

BY John Cox Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

Millions of pounds a day in compostable waste may be headed for landfills until supermarkets and other organic material handlers can find recycling companies to fill a vacuum created by this week's closure of a Lamont composting facility.

Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. says it processed close to a quarter of California's compostables -- up to 3,750 tons, or roughly 190 truckloads, a day of spoiled fruit, grass trimmings, cardboard, manure and other waste -- until the county Board of Supervisors pulled the company's operating permit Tuesday night over various land use and other violations.

Industry people say other composting companies will eventually take up the slack, but that in the meantime nothing is stopping many hundreds of California and Nevada grocery stores from sending their produce culls straight to the dump.

"It's unfortunate. It really is," said Michael Virga, executive director of the US Composting Council. Still, he emphasized that a bigger concern for the industry has been the death of two brothers who apparently inhaled lethal doses of toxic fumes while working at the plant last month.

"That's the most important thing, and I just don't want to lose sight of that," he said.

Community Recycling's 190-acre facility off North Wheeler Ridge Road was permitted by the county to take in 10 categories of compostable waste, the largest being yard trimmings, grass clippings and wood (1,250 tons a day), as well as spoiled fruit and vegetables from retail and warehouse centers (1,250 tons). The facility was also allowed to receive paper products (500 tons), organic materials gathered in street sweeping (250 tons) and cow manure (250 tons).

Among its customers were some of the West Coast's largest supermarket chains -- Vons, Safeway, Ralphs are Stater Bros., according to a list of nearly 1,500 individual stores the company provided the county last year. These companies -- which unlike municipalities are not required to divert a certain share of their waste stream away from landfills -- paid Community Recycling to pick up waste from stores as far away as Reno and San Diego.

Besides grocers, Community Recycling, part of San Fernando Valley-based Crown Disposal Co. Inc., also processed food and other green waste from the city of Arvin, beverages from Bakersfield nonprofit BARC and some 1 million gallons a day of sewer water from its landlord, the Lamont Public Utility District.

A representative of the company, Bakersfield environmental consultant Mary Jane Wilson, wrote in an email Thursday that the site's closure will have a broad and substantial impact.

"The closing of this facility will have an implication for landfill diversion on a statewide basis," she wrote.

An executive at the California Grocers Association said supermarket companies would likely find it less expensive to work with a composting company than a disposal company that would simply haul the waste to a dump.

The association's vice president of communication, Dave Heylen, said that while he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the situation, "my guess would be that ... (grocers) would be looking for alternative companies" to work with in Community Recycling's absence.

Bill Camarillo, CEO of Agromin, a large composting company based in Oxnard, challenged Community Recycling's claim that it handled 24 percent of California's compostable materials, and he downplayed the seriousness of Community Recycling's closure.

He said that although the state's composting industry has never had sufficient capacity to handle all California's potentially compostable materials, grocers should not have much trouble replacing Community Recycling.

"I can assure you that (grocers) are very smart people and they will find other composters as quickly as they can," he said, adding that there are more than 190 composting facilities in California.

Representatives of several large supermarket chains did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

Cal-OSHA has reported that 16-year-old Armando Ramirez, working under the identity of a 30-year-old, was cleaning out a drainage tunnel at Community Recycling Oct. 12 when he apparently inhaled a fatal concentration of hydrogen sulfide. His older brother, Heladio, who worked for Bakersfield labor contractor A & B Harvesting Inc., saw him lying unconscious at the bottom of an 8-foot underground shaft and went down to rescue him, only to be overcome as well. Armando was declared dead that day, while Heladio was left brain dead and removed from life support about two days later.

Besides Cal-OSHA, the state labor commissioner and the U.S. Department of Labor have confirmed they are investigating the deaths.

The accident came after years of land use violations and related problems at the facility, and it prompted a community outcry that helped pressure the board to revoke the company's permit.

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