ARVIN, Calif. — Every day, the trucks rumble into the Central Valley by the dozens, chugging over the Grapevine loaded with lawn clippings from Beverly Hills, sewage sludge from Los Angeles and rotting yogurt and vegetables from around Southern California.
Los Angeles officials and others say the daily caravan is an essential step toward recycling thousands of tons of urban waste and turning it into compost and fertilizer in California’s vast agrarian middle. But increasingly, residents of the Central Valley and other rural areas object to the stream of semis and their unpleasant cargo.
“You guys in Los Angeles are dumping all your waste on us,” said Sarah Sharpe, the environmental health program director at Fresno Metro Ministry, a nonprofit group that advocates for environmental justice. “We just don’t think it’s fair.”
Simmering for more than a decade, the issue has flared up in the last year after two young workers died from exposure to toxic fumes at one of the state’s largest composting operations in Kern County. Community Recycling & Resource Recovery’s facility outside Arvin was full of yard waste from Los Angeles, and had also been under fire for allegedly putting plastic on fields in violation of local land use rules.
Kern County’s supervisors ordered the operation shut, setting off a legal battle between the county and the operator.
Thirty-nine of California’s 58 counties shipped more than 5% of their trash and recycling across county lines last year. Much of it goes to the Central Valley, which has the vast acreage to handle it. A Times analysis of state recycling data shows that more than 60% of all non-agricultural compost in the state winds up in the region, which is home to just 14% of the population.
Processing waste regionally is the only way cities can meet state goals that call for diverting half their waste away from landfills, state and metropolitan officials say. There is not enough space in urban centers like San Francisco and Los Angeles, nor is there a large market there for compost.
But some officials said that when the waste gets to rural areas, recycling facilities don’t always sufficiently protect the environment and neighbors’ quality of life.
“A lot of these disposal facilities don’t want to use the most modern technology because it costs more,” said Kern County’s planning director, Lorelei Oviatt. “Our residents want to know why they have to endure the impacts merely to save money for some people in Los Angeles.”
The debate is only expected to escalate: A law approved last year calls for the state to aim to recycle or otherwise reduce 75% of its waste by 2020. Los Angeles has vowed to go even further, expanding recycling so much that the city will be “zero waste” by 2025.
One of the most bitter battles in California is over sludge, the batter-like material left over after treatment plants finish cleaning and draining what is flushed down the toilet or washed down the sink.
Sludge used to get dumped in the ocean — but that was banned in the 1980s because of concerns about pollution.
In 2000, the city of Los Angeles bought 4,600 acres in Kern County, just off Interstate 5 near Taft, and has been sending up more than 20 truckloads a day of “wet cake” from the Hyperion Sewage Treatment Plant near LAX.
Private companies in Kern County are also in the business, including the South Kern Industrial Center, operated by Synagro and Liberty Composting, both permitted to take hundreds of thousands of tons a year, according to officials at the regional waterboard.
Los Angeles officials and those at major wastewater treatment plants in the state say that spreading such “biosolids” on land or composting it as fertilizer is good for the city and good for the farm. They note that sludge is heated to 131 degrees for several days until harmful bacteria and pathogens are destroyed or removed.
Los Angeles’ land in Kern County features a red barn and a sign: “Green Acres Farm.” The city’s website proudly describes the corn, alfalfa and oats that are grown there.
“To me, it’s completing a circle, putting back to the earth what came from it, and doing it very protectively and beneficially,” said Greg Kester, biosolids program manager for the California Assn. of Sanitation Agencies. “Biosolids do enrich the soil in Kern County.”
Kern County officials don’t see it that way. They fear groundwater will be contaminated and that metals and pharmaceuticals will leach into the soil.
Most experts say recycled products such as sludge and compost are safe if handled properly. But Kern County officials filed court declarations from scientists who are skeptical. Portland State University engineer Gwynn Johnson, for instance, said research shows that biosolids contain metals, antibiotics and flame retardants, and that more study is needed to determine the implications for “human health and the environment.”
Residents tend to focus on the “ick” factor.
Ronald Hurlbert, who owned property near one sludge operation that at one point received waste from Orange County, said the odor was “virtually unbearable (like a well-used bathroom at LAX),” according to a sworn declaration filed in court by Kern County officials.
In 2006, more than 80% of Kern County voters approved Measure E, banning the importation of sludge from outside the county. Los Angeles sued, arguing that the initiative ran afoul of California’s waste management laws.
The suit was dismissed from federal court in 2010 on technical grounds, but Los Angeles re-filed it in state court, where it is pending. In the meantime, a judge allowed the city’s operations to continue.
The case has become one of the nation’s most closely watched battles over waste, in part because a sludge ban could prompt other jurisdictions to follow suit.
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County announced that it had purchased 14,500 acres in Kings County — also in the Central Valley — where it would be allowed to send hundreds of thousands of tons of sludge and yard waste.
Some material could start arriving at the end of next year.
At a 190-acre recycling facility at the southern end of Kern County, near the town of Arvin, Community Recycling takes in as much as a quarter of all the compostable materials in the state.
“The material coming from L.A. is being beneficially reused by the farmers, and it’s providing jobs for the people in the community,” said Alex Helou, assistant director of Los Angeles’ Sanitation Department.
Neighbors are less sanguine. “You get up and the smell is horrible, and you have no idea why,” said Sal Partida, an Arvin tax preparer.
Others complain that Community Recycling has repeatedly allowed plastic and other trash to blow off its property and spread for miles. In 2007, Kern County regulators accused the company of putting compost that contained “excessive plastics, glasses and other materials” on land company officials own near its facility.
One morning last fall, two brothers from Mexico went to clean a drainpipe at the facility. Within minutes, Armando Ramirez, 16, was dead. Eladio, 22, died two days later. The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health later found they had died from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, a byproduct of composting.
Cal-OSHA chief Ellen Widness called the deaths “completely preventable” and fined the company more than $160,000. The company appealed. Kern County officials issued $2.3 million in fines for land use and other violations and revoked the company’s operating permit.
Community Recycling sued, and a judge allowed it to keep operating the facility until a hearing set for early next year. Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment. Earlier this year, a spokeswoman called the brothers’ deaths “a tragic accident” but said the company believed state officials “rushed to judgment” and issued citations based on incomplete information.
Shortly after the brothers’ deaths, Los Angeles officials decided to stop sending their trucks of yard waste up to the facility. But in August, the city started dispatching them again.
Helou, of the Los Angeles Sanitation Department, said the city had nowhere else to recycle it.
Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this report.