Sludge Match

Posted October 15, 2009 in Feature Story

Welcome to Hinkley; a tiny, High Desert community with no mayor, city council or public park of its own, made famous by the 2000 film Erin Brockovich and the very real events that happened here.


Lying 14 miles west of Barstow in an unincorporated part of San Bernardino County just off Highway 58 and Interstate 15, this town, with less than 5,000 residents, was thrust into the international spotlight over a decade ago, when a struggling single mother and legal file clerk found evidence proving that Pacific Gas & Electric had contaminated the area’s water supply with a toxic substance called hexavalent chromium, a known cancer-causing agent.


The utility company later lied to Hinkley’s residents to cover up the numerous cases of cancer and other illnesses caused by the polluted water, prompting subsequent lawsuits which forced the utility giant to pay over $333 million dollars to victims.


But nine years after this fictionalized account of a very real environmental debacle, Hinkley’s residents found themselves once again battling what they construed as a very real threat to their collective health.



This time, residents are concerned over an Apple Valley-based company, Nursery Products, that is in the process of building an 80-acre outdoor composting facility less than 10 miles outside of Hinkley.


Norm Diaz, founder of, says that residents are vehemently opposed to the company’s plan to make compost using biosolids (sometimes called sludge), or chemically treated sewage, along with small amounts of green waste. According to Diaz, Hinkley’s residents refuse to be guinea pigs for Nursery Products and their sludge factory. As it stands, plans are in place for both San Bernardino and Riverside counties to each unload up to 200,000 tons of the treated waste at the planned facility. 


“They can dress it up with a bow on it and make it look pretty,” says Diaz. “But sludge is sludge, and it’s still toxic; I think this will harm the people in Hinkley and even Barstow.”


But Chris Seney, senior environmental engineer for Nursery Products, says people shouldn’t jump to conclusions about the composting center’s alleged impacts.


“People think Nursery Products will use raw sewage for our compost, but nothing could be further from the truth,” he says. “The huge difference is that what we’re going to use is treated waste, and it’s a very complicated process actually.”


The process starts with waste, flushed from homes, which ends up at a wastewater treatment plant, where it is treated and filtered according to EPA standards to kill bacteria and pathogens, Seney explains. The solid matter is extracted and the liquid (water) is discharged back into the ocean.


It’s this sludge-like solid that can be used to create high-quality, safe compost at a low cost, to the benefit of farmers and gardeners, according to Nursery Products. 


“Norm Diaz and others will use terms like ‘hazardous waste’ and ‘industrial waste,’ which we will not use,” insists Seney. “There are thousands of studies on biosolids concluding [that] it is safe to use for compost and it doesn’t impact people.”


One can argue, however, that PG&E might have told Hinkley the same thing about its own facilities.



Nursery Products is emphatic, however, that Hinkley’s prior contamination woes do not bear a comparison to the current situation.


“This is going to be nothing like that,” Seney says. “We’re talking about composting here, and people should realize that there are over 100 facilities in California alone, along with the several thousand in the country, that make compost using biosolids.”


Seney adds that the facility will be eight miles from Hinkley (“It might seem insignificant, but eight miles is a big distance.”).


Nursery Products filed for approval of its project in December 2005, county records show. The county’s Planning Commission certified and approved it in November 2006. This approval was appealed by Hinkley residents but the county Board of Supervisors denied the appeal and approved the composting center in February 2007. and a third party next filed a lawsuit, alleging that the county had violated the state’s Environmental Quality Act.


The courts partially agreed, to a certain extent with, and the county was ordered to provide an additional report focusing solely on two issues that went unanswered in the initial approval: what the source of water would be for the plant and whether or not it would be economically feasible to enclose the facility.


Seney points out that the court didn’t find fault with every other aspect of the county-approved Environmental Impact Report. “The county has been extensively studying this site for over four years and it has been certified by both the Board of Supervisors and the County Planning Commission.”


The conclusions are clear: There will be no impact on Hinkley or Barstow, Seney says. Nursery Products is waiting for a final batch of permits (including one for a water source) for operations to begin.



But Diaz maintains that Nursery Products cannot be trusted. He bases his suspicions partly on the company’s outdoor composting plant in Adelanto, roughly 30 miles away. Opened in 2002, the site was ordered shut down by the Adelanto City Council in 2005 after outraged residents complained of persistent health problems, noxious odors in the air and massive swarms of flies and insects.


“The people of Hinkley are going to be a test case for the effects of this site, just like in Adelanto,” Diaz says. Symptoms and complaints included ear, nose and throat infections and a rise in respiratory illnesses, according to published accounts. At an Adelanto elementary school, school officials testified that children suffered instances of vomiting, nausea, nose bleeds and headaches. These cases bolster Diaz’s concerns.


But he’s not alone.


Barstow Unified School District Superintendent Susan Levine agrees with Diaz and echoes his fears that the compost facility will bring harm to the people of Barstow and Hinkley. Hinkley Elementary School, a K-8 campus, is part of the BUSD and is located only eight miles west of the open-air plant.


“We believe the fumes from the sludge compost plant will be extremely harmful to anyone who breathes it in, especially with young children,” Levine says. “Because of the winds in the High Desert, and the fact that the facility would not be enclosed, both Hinkley and Barstow would suffer.”



Yet Seney says the opposition is misinformed and employing fear tactics.


“All they do is propagate fear,” he says. “All we hope is that people look at the facts and the science when looking at our facility.”


Though Diaz agrees that Nursery Products is no PG&E, he remains convinced that bacteria, downwind odor and pollution will be the end result. recently saw a victory of sorts when a San Bernardino Superior Court judge in August concluded that the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District’s rule, as it was applied to Nursery Products, made it easier and cheaper for composting facilities to set up shop in the area—and thus the agency’s approvals were null and void.


It was a clear case of profit over people, Diaz says.


Mojave agency spokeswoman Violette Roberts declined to comment in depth about the ruling, other than to say legal staff was still “reviewing the findings.”


But while Nursery Products insists both the Adelanto and Hinkley plants pose no danger, KCAA talk radio host Barb Stanton emerges as another voice of disagreement.



Stanton says she visited the Adelanto site on many occasions, after residents kept calling in to her show insisting the compost plant was causing them problems.


“In 2004 I received calls from citizens living in Adelanto who were angry and needed help,” Stanton says. “These calls were from Adelanto citizens complaining of rashes, irritated throats, coughing and the sensation that it was difficult to draw a deep breath.”


Residents described the smell as “a pasture ripe with manure and mildew rising and spreading for miles around,” according to Stanton.


During one March 2004 visit to the area, she noticed something odd.


“There was no vegetation growing anywhere near the Adelanto facility—it was strange like a dead zone. I was creeped out and not comfortable near the plant,” she recalls.


Stanton continued to hear more and more accounts of sickness from residents—some who became incensed that the facility had been approved to begin with.


Even Nursery Products admits there could have been a more ideal site for the compost plant.


“The Adelanto facility’s location was not ideal,” Seney admits. “We literally had neighbors across the street and homes a quarter mile away. But now, we learned from that and we understand the need to put a huge barrier [between] us and the public.”


Seney says that the flies and foul odors resulted when the company agreed to receive too much green waste, which includes curbside green bins and material such as leaves, shrubs and grass clippings. “The problem was that this material can sometimes rot and when left out in the sun in the desert, it can cause a distinctive odor and attract flies.”


But health problems? No way, Seney says.


“I worked at that site everyday for many months, with eight to 10 people,” he says. “I was out in the open with this material every day, along with my co-workers, and we never had any health problems.”



Hinkley’s anger also targets county Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district covers the town.


“How can our own county do this to us?” he asks. “I am sure that Nursery Products picked Hinkley because we have no representation and can’t fight back, but for the county to respond this way is unacceptable.


Mitzelfelt did not respond to several attempts to contact him for an interview.


Further clouding the issue are questions about how the compost plant would affect local water issues.


Documents from the California Regional Water Quality Control Board show Nursery Products claimed its discharge would or should not be designated as waste, and thus regulated—something the board sharply disputed.


Other documents, from the Mojave Water Agency, appear to show Nursery Products dramatically underestimating how much water its composting site would draw from the aquifer. The agency also refuted what appeared to be a Nursery Products claim that it was entitled to local water sources, uses and rights, documents show.


Seney dismisses the notion that such water issues are a smoking gun.


“These documents can be easily taken out of context and don’t show the whole story,” he says. “As I said before, we will do what is required to get all the proper permits to operate legally.”


But Diaz remains adamant the company is not to be trusted.


“We will continue to fight this and be proactive and continue on against this facility,” he says.


But there’s no reason to worry, insists the county.


 “After all of our studies, the county’s conclusion is it would not affect the air quality of Hinkley or the surrounding Barstow area,” county spokesman David Wert maintains, adding that “it would have never been approved if it would harm the people of Hinkley.”


The plant could get final county approval by December.


But Diaz isn’t buying a word of it.


“I don’t want to have our kids getting sick, which is what I’m trying to avoid with this battle,” he says. “It’s about our health and future.”


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