March 7th, 2012

Growth of composting in California strains oversight of industry

California’s next big step in recycling – composting its meat scraps, broken egg shells, coffee grounds and other detritus of eating – is straining the state’s ability to effectively manage the ever-growing and sometimes dangerous industry.

In October, 16-year-old Armando Ramirez and his brother, 22-year-old Heladio Ramirez, died of poisoning after Armando had been cleaning out a stormwater drain at the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery composting facility near Bakersfield. Heladio had gone down a hole and into the drain to rescue his brother.

The two undocumented workers inhaled hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas that sewage can generate. According to county documents, the facility near Lamont used discharged sewage water from an adjacent utility district to moisten its composting piles.

The brothers’ mother, Faustina Ramirez, filed a lawsuit in January against Community Recycling & Resource Recovery seeking at least $25,000 in damages, including funeral and burial expenses. She said she believes the company should have hired a professional service to clean the stormwater drains.

“What happened with my children was negligence – because they didn’t give them protection and because they knew what was going on in that site, and they sent them,” she said in an interview.

Photo: This hole at the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery site leads to a drainage ditch where the Ramirez brothers were overcome by fumes. Courtesy of The Bakersfield Californian. 

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California Watch, the largest investigative journalism team operating in the state, was launched in 2009 by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Investigative Reporting. Areas of coverage include education, health and welfare, public safety, the environment and the influence of money on the political and regulatory process.