New problem for ‘Erin Brockovich’ California town: Burning poop


On the evening of May 28, residents of the unincorporated high desert outpost of Hinkley who cranked up their swamp coolers, or stepped outside for a clear view of the stars, noticed a foul stench in the air.

And it didn’t go away. An odor reminiscent of burning plastic mixed with smoldering sewage has plagued the roughly 3,000 people who call Hinkley home for going on five weeks. Now, residents are reporting sinus issues, headaches, nausea and sick pets. One woman’s doctor, an ear, nose and throat specialist, instructed her to “get the hell out of town.”

The smell is coming from a fire at a composting facility the locals unaffectionately call the “Poop Farm.” The combustion, which started spontaneously, deep within the massive piles of biosolids and high stacks of green waste that fill the 80-acre plant, sends odor into the air some 10 miles downwind of Hinkley.

Hundreds of people have lodged complaints, and many in town are talking about a class action lawsuit. Government officials also are weighing in, issuing multiple notices of violations, including a fine from the local air quality district that could run up to $765,000.

But even with all that, workers from the Maryland-based firm Synagro — which, since 2016, has owned the plant called Nursery Products — still haven’t put the fire out.

The fire is only the latest scourge caused by Synagro and Nursery Products, according to residents and environmental groups who tried to block the composting facility more than a decade ago, when the community was still reeling from the last time a company used their beloved desert town as a dumping ground.

“Last night I went outside, and it was like something evil waiting outside the door,” said Terry Burns, who’s lived most of his 64 years in Hinkley.

“We’ve just taken another kick to the gut as far as I’m concerned.”

But officials at Synagro say its Nursery Products plant provides a vital public service as one of just a handful of facilities in California that is permitted to turn biosolids into organic compost. And with new state regulations calling for more composting by businesses and households, officials in the waste industry say more plants like the one in Hinkley soon will be needed.

It’s got to go somewhere

No one wants a sewage sludge composting facility in their community. But of course, the waste has to go somewhere.

Synagro’s facility is permitted to process up to 400,000 wet tons of material each year, mostly from cities and agencies throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. That includes the kitchen and green yard waste residents put in their bins each week, and the human-produced biosolids that are processed at wastewater treatment plants.

The South Orange County Wastewater Authority, for example, which processes sewage from communities such as Laguna Beach and Dana Point, sends two truckloads of leftover sludge each day some 130 miles into the desert.

At the plant, Synagro lets biology work its magic. Heat generated by microbes during decomposition kills off pathogens, turning the biosolids into what is known as  “class A” organic compost. The company then offers that compost to area farms and other customers, citing research about how compost made from biosolids can improve soil quality.

But Synagro — which has ties to Goldman Sachs and owns 24 composting facilities nationwide — acknowledged that the Hinkley plant recently has needed to be brought into “better balance.” Spokesman Layne Baroldi said lots of wet waste has been coming in, amid new state mandates on composting, and not enough processed compost has been going out, with the coronavirus pandemic making it difficult to offload the product.

County inspectors have recorded 12 violations at the Hinkley plant since the start of this year, and dozens more in the two years prior. In March, a county said compost at the plant registered unacceptable levels of plastic material and salmonella. In April, the county raised concerns that the plant was accepting unapproved waste from Anheuser-Busch’s Van Nuys brewery. Another report says workers added fresh waste to processed compost that was about to be shipped out. And there are repeated notices about litter, with trash piling up on the fences and shrubs near the site.

Heat, and fire danger, is part of the process. Compost piles must reach 131 degrees for at least 15 days to kill off pathogens. But if the piles get above 160 degrees — as can happen when they grow bigger than the maximum sizes recommended by the Environment Protection Agency and aren’t turned over often enough to introduce air into the mix — the core temperature can rise to the material’s flash point, sparking a fire. And those fires can be difficult to extinguish, with new material continually producing more heat.

Residents recall a fire at the plant in January. Heavy smoke from that incident caused a nuisance and the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District issued Synagro with a $40,000 fine. But after the company submitted fire mitigation plans and signed paperwork saying staff had fire prevention training, the fine was cut to $5,000 so long as procedures were followed through February 2023.

But flames were visible again when San Bernardino County Fire responded on May 28, according to fire agency spokeswoman Tracey Martinez. Five hours later, after firefighters knocked down the active blaze, the department passed responsibility to Synagro to extinguish the smoldering piles.

Initially, Synagro hired a helicopter company to drop water on the piles, Baroldi said. As local news coverage drew public and regulatory attention to issue, Synagro hired two massive bulldozers and a large excavator to break up the piles, which would expose the smoldering areas so they could be doused more effectively by water trucks.

That work started on the morning of June 23 — just before regulators from county and regional water and environmental agencies conducted a surprise inspection.

After that visit, representatives from those agencies said they were satisfied with the progress Synagro was making at controlling the fire. Mojave District air officials and Synagro are negotiating a settlement over the latest violation, and local water regulators said the facility generally hasn’t raised red flags in terms of being a bad actor.

“It’s a pretty clean operation for what they do,” said Jan Zimmerman, a senior engineering geologist with the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Hinkley residents: Not again

For people living in Hinkley, it’s all too familiar.

If the name rings a bell, it’s because events in the tiny town along the railroad tracks near Barstow inspired the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.” The movie details the true story of how Pacific Gas & Electric, in the 1950s and ’60s, poisoned Hinkley’s groundwater with cancer-causing chromium 6, and then spent years denying the problem.

Resident’s complaints were ignored, even as many got sick and died. In 1996, after Brockovich and other attorneys and activists got involved, PG&E settled a class action, paying out $333 million and buying many homes.

But the episode left Hinkley a shadow of the community it once was. The school closed and hundreds of families moved away, leaving dilapidated, graffiti-covered structures that still can be seen throughout town.

But some 3,000 people refused — or didn’t feel able — to walk away.

Norman Diaz’s family has owned a farm on the edge of Hinkley since 1908. While they no longer grow alfalfa, Diaz, 60, still lives on the farm, caring for his aging mother and working as a location scout. Car companies, in particular, love to shoot commercials at the local dry lake beds.

Since the May 28 fire started, Diaz said he’s endured regular headaches that feel like migraines.

“I don’t think this thing is safe,” he said.

Diaz led the charge, starting back in 2006, to fight Nursery Products from opening its plant in town. His group, with help from environmental organizations, won some legal battles to block the project. But in the end, San Bernardino County approved it.

The air quality issues were “not just predictable, but predicted,” said Kassie Siegel, a senior attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity who worked with Diaz to fight the project.

“It’s causing horrendous health harm and suffering in the community and the county,” she said.

Locals and environmental groups requested that the composting pits be lined to prevent contaminants from leaching into the groundwater. But the water board said the area’s densely packed clay would do the job.

Diaz and his team also wanted the facility to be enclosed to contain the odors. But the company said that was too expensive. Today, its website says the Hinkley plant is at a “naturally advantageous” site with “no added costs or expenses of an enclosed facility to control air quality.”

In some ways, Hinkley residents say problems caused by the composting plant are more disruptive than what they endured from the PG&E contamination.

“My quality of life was fine, even through the PG&E years,” Burns said. “It wasn’t wretched like this is.”

Terry Burns, 64, who has lived in Hinkley since 1966, talks about the smell from Nursery Products southwest of Hinkley, CA on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Nursery Products is an 80-acre biosolids composting facility southwest of Hinkley. A fire has been burning inside the Synagro-owned facility's composting material since May 28, with foul odors reported for miles. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Terry Burns, 64, who has lived in Hinkley since 1966, talks about the smell from Nursery Products southwest of Hinkley, CA on Thursday, June 23, 2022. Nursery Products is an 80-acre biosolids composting facility southwest of Hinkley. A fire has been burning inside the Synagro-owned facility’s composting material since May 28, with foul odors reported for miles. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG) 

Normally, Burns said he and his family love the sunsets, the stars and the quiet of Hinkley. He’s retired, after working in a local mine for 40 years, and knows he’d wind up with a big mortgage if he tried to move away from the home he bought in the early 1980s for $43,000.

But Burns said he started having sinus issues right after the fire started. And his 87-year-old father, who Burns’ recalls being sick only once 40 years ago with a kidney stone, recently developed pneumonia.

“The same agencies that really didn’t care to do a whole lot about PG&E, they’re the same ones that don’t care a whole lot about this.”

Christie Smith’s sister got a share of the PG&E settlement after proving her cancer was linked to the contamination. Her sister died at 34, just a few years after her brother died at the same age.

She now lives in their family home and said the compost plant incident is “like PG&E all over again.” A petition she started on Change.org., urging Synagro to clean up its act, has wracked up hundreds of signatures.

“It makes your eyes burn and itch and water,” Smith, 54, said. “It gives you an intense headache, nausea, sometimes dizzy spells and a general feeling of unwellness.”

‘What can we do?’

Synagro says it’s making changes to prevent such problems from recurring.

Since the fire started, Baroldi said they’re reduced production by 25%, and new material is being processed in a separate area so it won’t add to the “smolder fire.”

But resident Burns said that with odors and health effects persisting, he’s at a loss for what to do.

“Do we just suffer with it? Because this won’t be the last fire. Unless something is done, where they feel the pain, this won’t be the last time that this happens.”

One of the same law firms that worked with Hinkley residents on PG&E cases, and has worked on the Porter Ranch gas leak case and other environment-related lawsuits, is talking to locals about something that could cause Synagro to feel some serious pain.

Gary Praglin, attorney with Santa Monica-based Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy, said his firm has contact information for more than 100 area residents who say they’ve been impacted by the fire.

“It’s a little too early to say exactly what shape things will take, but I hope we’ll know soon,” Praglin said.

Smith said the firm is planning a meeting at a nearby hotel in coming weeks, where they hope to hear about prospects for a possible class action lawsuit.

Residents have also talked about launching protests at the plant, and they’ve sought help from state and federal representatives.



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