Big stink, little progress; Hinkley residents claim health risks from composter

“It smells like a fresh batch of poop!”

A resident of the tiny desert town of Hinkley, near Barstow, posted that comment to a community Facebook page in December. Several neighbors chimed in to agree, offering up poop emojis and expressing frustration that they weren’t getting the break they’d been promised from the nauseating stench that’s been an unwelcome guest in their homes and neighborhoods for much of the past decade.

The promise came earlier in the fall, after San Bernardino County’s health department issued a cease-and-desist order to operators of the nearby Nursery Products composting facility. Officials said Synagro, a Maryland-based firm that runs the site, had taken in far too many trucks full of green waste and sewage sludge, creating fire hazards, odor problems and other violations. Regulators ordered the company to stop accepting any new waste and to clean up its act by Dec. 31 or face serious penalties.

Synagro pushed back, filing an appeal and asking for more time. County officials responded by giving the company an extra three months to comply. In the meantime, citing some progress, regulators also agreed to let Synagro reopen its gates to take in limited volumes of new waste each day.

But before new truckloads of sludge were reported to arrive, on Jan. 3, residents said the odor had already returned.

“Oh, we’re pissed,” said Christie Smith, a resident of the nearby town of Hinkley.

“They don’t have room to manage what they have already, and then they get to take more?”

The problems in Hinkley — the agricultural community made famous by a deadly pollution battle chronicled in the 2000 movie “Erin Brockovich” — are drawing attention from state regulators. On Dec. 23, CalRecycle, the agency that oversees recycling and waste disposal operators, added Synagro’s high desert site to its list of eight solid waste facilities that are “violating state minimum standards.”

But residents view such moves as a “slap on the wrist.” And they say their health and quality of life are paying the price, an allegation that’s spelled out in lawsuits representing more than 500 people.

The controversy also isn’t great news for California’s ambitious climate goals. The state recently created rules aimed at keeping food and yard waste out of landfills, rules that push Californians to compost more material than ever. That means California probably will need to approve more treatment centers — a challenge made more difficult by reports of health concerns, lawsuits and mismanagement at the site near Hinkley.

Resident Smith hopes that her story will prompt the state to be more careful in permitting and more attentive in oversight of all composting sites, so that no one else will have to deal with what Hinkley residents have experienced.

Of the state’s future role with composting, she said, “They need to come up with a better plan.”

From bad to worse

Public agencies and private businesses from throughout Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties pay Synagro — which is owned by the banking giant Goldman Sachs — to process their food scraps, yard waste and biosolids from sewage treatment plants at the Nursery Products site. The material is spread out in giant piles, where heat generated by microbes during decomposition kills off pathogens, a process that turns biosolids into compost.

That process also generates an odor, and it can result in fires if compost piles aren’t properly managed. Since 2007, when Nursery Products opened (over protests from residents and environmental groups) residents say the smell of sewage and burning plastic has frequently wafted over nearby communities such as Hinkley, Helendale and west Barstow.

The situation worsened in late May, when rotting waste spontaneously combusted deep within composting piles that, according to regulators, had been allowed to grow too tall and too close together.

The fire flared up, smoldered and flared again for more than three months, eventually encompassing 25 of the facility’s 80 acres. Smoke, and the rancid particles of burnt waste that it carried, crept into swamp coolers and left a film on residents’ windows and in their pets’ water bowls. Residents said it also triggered nausea, headaches and respiratory issues, with some doctors advising patients to leave town.

Workers move materials at Nursery Products, an 80-acre biosolids composting facility southwest of Hinkley, CA on Thursday, June 23, 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)
Workers move materials at Nursery Products, an 80-acre biosolids composting facility southwest of Hinkley, CA on Thursday, June 23, 2022. (Photo by Paul Bersebach, Orange County Register/SCNG)

On Sept. 29, after regulators received hundreds of complaints and documented repeated violations, San Bernardino County’s Department of Public Health ordered Synagro to stop accepting waste until the company addressed its numerous violations. The county gave Synagro until the end of 2022 to comply or face hefty fines and potential court action.

Synagro quickly appealed the cease-and-desist order, and a hearing in that case is scheduled for Jan. 19 in San Bernardino.

In October, the company submitted a plan to get back on track, promising the county that by the end of March it could reduce the size of its piles and add space between them. The county agreed to extend the deadline to March 31. And after the company made some progress toward those goals in that first month, the county health department opted to let Synagro accept up to 200 tons of new waste material per day (down from the typical permit limit of 2,000 tons per day) starting Nov. 16.

Less than two weeks later, a resident posted in a Hinkley Facebook group: “Synagro must be back in business!” Smith said the stench persisted for about three days, though she said the smell during that episode was less reminiscent of burning waste and more like living in “the garden section at Home Depot.”

County officials and Synagro spokesman Layne Baroldi said they received no odor complaints in December. And while the county said Synagro was given the green light to accept new material in November, that didn’t actually happen until Jan. 3.

“We continue to work closely with regulators to ensure their feedback regarding our processes and protocols is implemented as quickly and efficiently as possible,” Baroldi said via email. “We are committed to being a good neighbor while providing vital recycling services to Southern California counties for processing non-hazardous organic material.”

But in three inspections of the Nursery Products facility — two in November and one in December — county officials found ongoing violations. Reports from that period said compost piles were still too big and that the fire lines between piles were still inadequate. Also, trash from the facility continued to blow into the nearby desert.

Overall, the county’s Nov. 14 report stated, the facility was still operating in a manner that “resulted in emergency situations, potential health hazards, and the creation of a public nuisance.”

So far, San Bernardino County’s health department has yet to fine Synagro for these violations. But that could change. In a lawsuit it filed in September against the company, the county has asked for permission to potentially issue such fines.

Court battles begin

San Bernardino County’s nuisance abatement lawsuit argues Synagro hasn’t complied with conditions spelled out when it began operating at the location, county spokesman David Wert said. He said violations include inadequate space between the composting piles and lack of sufficient fire monitoring equipment, among other terms.

Wert said the lawsuit aims to recover county costs related to these problems and impose penalties against Nursery Products “with the ultimate goal of ensuring that the risk of a repeat event is drastically lessened.” A trial-setting conference on that case is set for May.

Synagro doesn’t discuss pending litigation, Baroldi said when asked for comment.

Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District also notified Synagro over the summer that it was facing potential fines of nearly $1 million for continuing to discharge “quantities of air contaminants which cause nuisance to a considerable number of persons.” Settlement discussions are underway and the agency declined to provide more detail, citing the ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, three separate lawsuits over Nursery Products — representing roughly 500 area residents — are working their way through county and federal courts.

Two law firms out of San Diego joined forces to file a complex civil case against Synagro and Goldman Sachs in San Bernardino County Court in August on behalf of 31 area residents who live within 25 miles of the Nursery Products site.

The suit claims that by allowing “dangerous conditions to persist” at the facility, Synagro set the stage for the massive fire over the summer. The suit also says the company failed to notify residents about the problem, or take steps to fix it. As a result, the suit states, residents suffered property damage and health issues, including “breathing problems, chest tightness, burning eyes, headaches, nausea, sinus issues, coughing” and more. The suit asks the court to force Synagro and Goldman Sachs to cover residents’ medical bills, lost wages and other costs, and to award damages.

That case was moved to federal court in October, where the defendants made a motion to dismiss the case. A hearing on that motion is scheduled for March 24.

In October, the Santa Monica-based firm Cotchett, Pitre & McCarthy filed two lawsuits in San Bernardino County against Nursery Products, representing several hundred area residents, including Smith.

Those cases aren’t yet in the public system, since attorney Hannah Brown said the county court is a few months behind on processing complaints. But a filing in the federal case indicates that all the claims are “virtually identical” and that the three sets of cases are expected to move forward together once the original filing is processed by the county court.

Déjà vu

Smith said she’s optimistic justice will eventually swing in residents’ favor. But she’s also well aware that could take half a dozen years. After all, she watched her sister go through a similar process a couple decades ago, when the same law firms now representing Hinkley residents in the Synagro cases represented many of them in suits against Pacific Gas & Electric over groundwater contamination.

Smith’s sister received 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.

Some residents still are suffering health issues related to the PG&E poisoning. And Smith said for many, those conditions were made worse during the Synagro fire.

She hopes Synagro will take steps to better manage the site. Otherwise, she said, “The next big wind event we have, we could definitely have another big fire on our hands that could take another year to put out.”

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