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Waste Conversion Company Agrees to Relocate : Dispute: Firm says it will move to remote site within 18 months. Neighbors, who complain of odor, rodents and dust, remain skeptical.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Owners of an eastern Ventura County company that uses worms to convert yard waste into fertilizer said Thursday that neighbors’ complaints about rats, noxious odors and clouds of dust have forced the company to look for a more remote location.

Officials for the Worm Concern announced at a county hearing Wednesday evening that the company plans to move from its location on Tierra Rejada Road within 18 months.

But company President Richard Morhar said Thursday that he could not make any guarantees as to keeping to schedule. “We want to move,” Morhar said. “We have a long-range plan for growth, and we’d like to find a site that would allow us to grow.

“But if it costs too much, or we can’t find the right site, it could take a couple of years,” he said. “It’s definitely a possibility, though. Everything here is mobile.”

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Neighbors said they are skeptical that the company will move with 18 months. And even if it relocates as planned, they want the problems of dust, smell and rodents resolved immediately.

“The smell is just horrendous,” said Mary Haus, who owns and operates a nearby Arabian horse breeding ranch. “It’s too much to take for another year.”

Even though the waste company plans to relocate, it must still begin a thorough environmental analysis of its current operation by the end of the year or risk having the county shut it down, planning officials said.

The Worm Concern has operated for nearly three years without a permit, under a compliance agreement with the county that expires Dec. 31.

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Morhar said he has balked so far at doing a detailed environmental impact report because its estimated $200,000 cost could put the company out of business.

If the firm had to close, it would jeopardize the recycling efforts of Thousand Oaks, Simi Valley and Moorpark, he said, noting that all cities under state law must limit the amount of trash they send to landfills.

The state requires that cities reduce the amount of trash they send to area landfills 25% by 1995 and 50% by 2000. Because “green waste,” or trash from lawn and garden clippings, makes up as much as 30% of the trash that is sent to landfills, recycling that waste would go a long way in helping cities meet the state mandates.

The Worm Concern accepts about 100 tons of green waste a day, much of it coming from a curbside recycling program in Simi Valley. They plan to bring in as much as 350 tons a day when similar programs in Thousand Oaks and Moorpark begin.

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The Ventura County planning director will rule within 30 days if the company must complete a full environmental impact report, said Lynne Kada, a county planner. Kada said county officials are reviewing the company’s plan to reduce the odor and rebuttal to health concerns raised by neighbors.

Pete Racicot, an environmental consultant working for the company, said using worms to turn green waste into fertilizer is an evolving science.

“It’s new,” he said. “We need new kinds of regulation to deal with the operation. It’s like recycling glass and aluminum. Now we’re recycling green waste, and the county is still figuring out how to deal with that.”

But neighbors contend that the Worm Concern is simply a money-making dump.

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“They’ve gotten all this positive press because they say they’re doing something good for the environment,” said James Hagman, who runs Elvenstar Farms, a riding school next to the Worm Concern.

“That’s the big joke,” he said. “They’re operating an unregulated, un-permitted dump.” Hagman estimates that he has spent about $10,000 on a lawyer and political consultant to put pressure on the county to force the Worm Concern to conduct a full environmental review of its operation.

Hagman said he plans to organize the neighbors and file a class-action lawsuit to shut down the facility.

He stressed he has nothing against the concept of recycling yard waste. “It’s a good idea if it was in the right location and with the right safeguards,” he said. “But it’s not acceptable here.”

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