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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
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By Henry A. Barrios / The Californian
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By John Cox / The Californian
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By Kern County Fire Department
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By Kern County Fire Department photo
BY John Cox Californian staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
As federal officials opened an investigation into Wednesday's death of a 16-year-old at a Lamont composting facility, family members complained that the young man and his injured brother had been given only flimsy painters' masks to protect them from deadly fumes.
A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor said Thursday that investigators began looking into the accident because the person who died, Armando Ramirez, was a minor. Cal-OSHA is also investigating the accident.
Authorities said Ramirez and his 22-year-old brother, Eladio Ramirez, were overcome by fumes inside an 8-foot-deep drainage tunnel at Community Recycling and Resource Co. and taken to Kern Medical Center, where Armando was pronounced dead. Family members said Eladio was left brain dead.
County officials said they detected a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide inside the tunnel. Sour gas, as it is more commonly known, is a byproduct of the composting product that attacks the central nervous system.
Relatives said the brothers had complained about strong odors at the facility. They said painters' masks and rubber boots were the only protection offered to them.
"Why don't they take precautions if they know it's dangerous?" asked Fidencio Corminales, a relative of the brothers. "They don't give them the right equipment. It upsets me."
"They didn't give them anything," added relative Guadalupe Diaz, who lived with the brothers at a modest home in Arvin.
Officials of the family-owned company, part of Sun Valley-based Crown Disposal Co. Inc., did not return repeated requests for comment Wednesday and Thursday.
Family members said the two brothers had worked for several months at the facility irrigating compost piles, though a Cal-OSHA spokeswoman said the older brother was employed by A & B Harvesting Inc.
A & B Harvesting did not respond to requests for comment, and a man who answered the phone there Thursday abruptly hung up on a reporter.
Both brothers came to the United States from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca about two years ago, relatives said. They first went to Salinas, where their mother works harvesting produce, they said. Eladio got a job in the fields but Armando did not because he was too young, they said.
The brothers moved to Arvin because they have family members there, their aunt, Veronica Garcia, said. Armando got a job at Community Recycling, and soon thereafter, she said, Eladio started working there as well.
"They were good people," she said of the brothers. "We're told they worked well."
Neither brother mentioned any danger associated with their jobs, she said, but they did speak of a "strong odor" at the job site.
"They said from a far distance it stank, like it was toxic," she said in Spanish.
Their death has shaken many people in Arvin, which she said has many residents from the same town in Oaxaca.
"We can't grasp how they could have died," she said.
Diaz said he thought the brothers both earned minimum wage. They would come home with very dirty clothes, he added.
"I would ask them, "Why did you return so dirty?'" he said.
"They wanted to work."
Erika Monterroza, a spokeswoman for Cal-OSHA, said the Lamont facility had no record of workplace violations, though a county official said the plant had a history of falling afoul of land-use rules.
Monterroza said the younger of the two brothers was cleaning the inside of the drain pipe when he was overcome by fumes. As a matter of policy, she declined to use the brothers' names.
The other brother went into the pipe to rescue the first victim and was also overcome by fumes, Monterroza said. She added that a third victim who was not identified was also injured and treated.
The incident, which county officials said took place at about 11:33 a.m., was reported to Cal-OSHA at 3:50 p.m., Monterroza said.
Officials at both the Kern County Superintendent of Schools and the Kern High School District said they had no indication that Armando ever attended local schools.
"We are concerned about a 16-year-old boy in the Arvin area not being at school at 11:33 a.m. and instead being someplace where he gets killed," said John Teves, a KHSD spokesman.