Local News

Sunday, Oct 14 2012 06:10 PM

Handful of Arvin residents protest composting firm

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    By Shelby Mack / The Californian

    Faustina Ramirez (center) walks with other supporters during a rally at the corner of Wheeler Ridge Road and Bear Mountain Boulvard near Arvin to demand that Community Recycling stop releasing toxic emissions into Arvin's air. Ramirez is the mother of Armando and Heladio Ramirez who were killed after inhaling toxic gases while working at Community Recycling last year.

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BY REBECCA KHEEL Californian staff writer rkheel@bakersfield.com

A handful of people marched in circles in a dirt lot across from Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. outside Arvin on Sunday.

They were holding signs reading "Why can't you be a good neighbor and stop polluting our homes," "Community Recycling stop polluting our air," and "Shame on you Community Recycling, you lie to Arvin."

And as they marched, they chanted, alternatively in English and Spanish.

"What do we want?" a leader shouted in Spanish.

The rest of the group responded: "Clean air!"

The group was on the corner of Wheeler Ridge Road and Bear Mountain Boulevard protesting the composting company Community Recycling and what it sees as the facility's role in polluting Arvin's historically bad air. The protest was held to publicize recently released findings from air samples the community took around the facility. The protest also fell near the one-year anniversary of the deaths of two brothers who worked at the facility.

Community Recycling declined to comment for this report through its lawyer, T. Mark Smith.

In the past, representatives from Community Recycling have said they are working in compliance with all court orders, that they are striving to maintain a safe working environment and that the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District has never cited them.

But Community Recycling has been given citations by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. In March, Cal-OSHA issued 16 citations totaling $166,890, saying Community Recycling was at fault for the deaths of two brothers last October.

On Oct. 12, 2011, Armando Ramirez, 16, died from inhaling the poisonous gas hydrogen sulfide while cleaning out a drainage shaft at Community Recycling. His brother, Heladio Ramirez, 22, tried to rescue him, but was overcome by the gas and was rendered brain dead. Three days later, Heladio Ramirez was taken off life support and died.

One year later, the facility remains open, awaiting a hearing in February to determine if it can stay open.

Faustina Ramirez, Armando and Heladio's mother, was at the protest Sunday. She said she doesn't understand how Community Recycling can stay open.

"I feel horrible," she said in Spanish, which was translated to English by a fellow protester. "I can't forget the loss. I always, every day, remember my sons."

The protest was organized by the Arvin Bucket Brigade, a group of Arvin residents who took their own air samples around the facility. Between December 2011 and September 2012, they took seven samples. To ensure the air the they sampled was coming from the facility, samplers stood downwind, said Bianca Santoyo, program coordinator for Committee for a Better Arvin.

The samples were sent to an Environmental Protection Agency-approved lab in Simi Valley, said Jessica Hendricks, program manager for Global Community Monitor, an environmental group that helped the Bucket Brigade with the sampling. After the lab evaluated the samples, they were sent to a third-party scientist for further interpretation.

To further determine if Community Recycling was a threat for pollution, Hendricks said, the group took samples at three other locations: Grimmway Farms, Bear Mountain Winery and Green Valley Cold Storage. Findings from Community Recycling were the worst of the four, she said.

"We thought we would have more impact focusing on Community Recycling," she said.

The samples found hydrogen sulfide remained in the air. The first sample the group took in December at 5755 Wheeler Ridge Road found 21 micrograms per cubic meter of air. But at the highest level, the group found 180 micrograms per cubic meter. The sample was taken July 17 on Fairfax Road and Bear Mountain Boulevard.

That's four times higher than the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment's reference level for acute exposure and 18 times higher than the reference level for chronic exposure. Acute exposure causes headache and nausea, while chronic exposure results in damage to the respiratory system, according to the office's toxicity criteria database.

Flor Zacarias lives about five miles from Community Recycling and was at the protest Sunday. Every day at about 6 p.m., she said, the smell from Community Recycling overpowers her neighborhood. Everything smells of oil, rotting food and smoke, she said.

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