Local News

Tuesday, Nov 15 2011 10:57 PM

County supervisors revoke Community Recycling's operating permit

BY JOHN COX Californian staff writer jcox@bakersfield.com

The county Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday night to revoke Community Recycling's operating permit, hours after it fined the company $2.33 million for land use and related violations.

Company principal Tom Fry declined to comment after the 10 p.m. vote.

The decision to revoke the permit came after an emotional plea by Faustina Ramirez, the mother of the two brothers believed to have inhaled fatal doses of toxic gases at the plant.

"I want that company shut down," she told the board in Spanish. "It is a big pain to lose your sons. I am asking for justice."

In explaining their decisions, several board members referred to findings this week by Cal-OSHA that five times this month the company has violated a recent agency order that no one come within six feet of any openings or entries to the site's storm drain system, where the two brothers were found unconscious. The agency said the company had hired a vacuum truck to clean out the drains, and that the truck's operator violated the order.

Board Chairman Mike Maggard said this action helped seal his feelings about the company that he said had a history of violations.

"The bottom line is, I just can't believe this company anymore," he said. "This is a terrible disservice to our entire community, and no one put them in this position but themselves."

Attention now turns to the Lamont Public Utility District, which warned the board that shutting down Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. would leave the district without anywhere to send roughly 1 million gallons a day of sewer water. District attorney Larry Peake warned that within 46 days sewer water would flow onto nearby highways, and there was little that could be done about it.

County staff rejected Peake's argument, saying there were viable alternatives for dealing with the sewer water.

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.

At Tuesday's hearing, business people and contractors who work with Community Recycling argued that closing the company would have a wide impact, putting far more than its 130 employees out of work while also denying local farmers the soil amendment the facility generates.

Employees of the company spoke in the company's defense. General office manager JoAnne Avalos predicted that closing the facility would affect 650 people directly, counting the employees' family members.

"I want to keep my job," she said. "So do my fellow workers."

The fines, levied against Community Recycling as well as a family trust related to the company that owns land adjacent to the site, surprised even some of the most ardent opponents of the company.

Ingrid Brostrom, an attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, said of the fines, "They were bigger than I expected."

A welding contactor who does work for Community Recycling said fines were a mistake and the company should instead be thanked for the community service it provides. The contractor, Ron Rogers, likened Tuesday's hearing to a "witch hunt."

Both of the board actions -- the fines and the revocation -- seemed to leave room for a legal fight. Indeed, there was discussion between the board and its legal counsel as to whether the fines might be attacked in court as excessive, and whether the hearing had been properly noticed.

An attorney for Community Recycling, Mark Smith, argued that not only was the meeting inadequately posted, but also that county staff had confused violations of the operating permit and operations on land adjacent to the composting facility.

But county Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt countered that the land use and other violations alleged took place on the land covered by the operating permit.

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