For those who have not heard of the deaths of two young men at a Lamont, CA, composting facility, first let me share the story as reported by John Cox, staff writer for The Bakersfield Californian.
Family says Arvin brothers killed, injured at composting site protected only by painters’ masks
As federal officials opened an investigation into Wednesday’s [October 12] 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. [Subsequently, Eladio died on October 14 after he was removed from life support.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
You may believe that the hydrogen sulfide gas induced deaths of the Ramirez brothers can be written off as the result of a tragic, but far-fetched, situation, thus hardly justification for placing the entire practice under a microscope . . . but is it?
Before I put my foot in it, let me point out that I am an amateur composter who three or four times a week turns the crank on my rather small collection of food scraps and trimmings in an effort that keeps the neighbors and some of my plants happy. Granted this does not make me a master of anything, but it does entitle me to a minor seat in the Amen Corner.
That said—and here comes my foot bound for the effluent—I see composting getting preferential treatment when it comes to public oversight. No landfill today could begin to get away with the lack of leachate and air emissions management practices deemed acceptable at all too many compost operations. Double-lined what? Leachate monitoring what? Not when it comes to a favorite of the public policy brigade.
While hydrogen sulfide gas may not be your everyday compost pile problem, don’t tell that to the citizens of Arvin or Lamont today, and, in literal fact, who’s to say that it isn’t more prevalent than any of us might believe? And therein lies the crux of the issue from my standpoint.
The Cal-OSHA spokeswoman summed it up perfectly when she said that there was no record of workplace violations at the facility. Does this mean that it wasn’t a problem, or was it that they weren’t looking at composting facilities with the same fervor they might with a landfill? Furthermore, where are there the regulations and oversight over what materials and combinations of materials can go into compost facilities? One more question while I’m at it: What leads us to believe that composting is always a better solution to organic materials management than bioenergy production or, for that matter, landfilling?
Without subjecting compost operations to the same standards of oversight and pollution management as we do landfills, we will remain as ignorant of the health and safety threat as the Ramirez brothers, their parents, guardians, neighbors, Cal-OSHA, the unnamed county officials, and all the people in the Lamont area who smelled the “strong odor” and considered it “just part of the environment.”