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Composting facility where brothers died fined $166,890

Courtesy of The Bakersfield CalifornianHeladio Ramirez, 22, tried to rescue his brother from a stormwater drain and was overcome by fumes.

State workplace regulators levied $166,890 in fines and issued multiple citations today against the largest composting facility in California, near Bakersfield, where two brothers died last fall while cleaning a stormwater drain.

Officials with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health, better known as Cal/OSHA, said the agency issued 16 citations against the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery composting facility. Sixteen-year-old Armando Ramirez and his brother, 22-year-old Heladio Ramirez, died of hydrogen sulfide poisoning after Armando had been cleaning out a stormwater drain.

The civil citations aren’t the end of Community Recycling’s difficulties. Cal/OSHA’s Bureau of Investigation also is looking into possible criminal activity by the company.

These findings could be turned over to the Kern County district attorney’s office, according to Cal/OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza. Also, the state’s Division of Labor Standards Enforcement is investigating Community Recycling for possible violation of child labor laws.

Heladio Ramirez had gone down a hole and into the drain to rescue Armando Ramirez, who had lost consciousness while cleaning debris from the drain. Armando was pronounced dead at the scene Oct. 12, and Heladio died at Kern Medical Center on Oct. 14 after being taken off life support. 

According to county documents, the Community Recycling facility used discharged sewage water from an adjacent utility district to moisten its composting piles. While cleaning the drain, the brothers inhaled hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous gas that sewage can generate.

Robert Perez, an attorney for the brothers’ mother, Faustina Ramirez, said Cal/OSHA’s action will allow her to move forward with her lawsuit against Community Recycling. The lawsuit is seeking at least $25,000 in damages, including funeral and burial expenses.

“We’ve filed the lawsuits, and we’ve been waiting for the Cal/OSHA report so that we can commence our discovery,” Perez said. “Filing the lawsuits now gives us subpoena power, and the Cal/OSHA report will be a great benefit in helping us determine what documents we’re going to subpoena, what individuals we’re going to depose and what further action we’re going to take to aggressively (pursue) this lawsuit.”

Community Recycling officials said that as of this afternoon, they had not seen the citations so could not comment meaningfully about them.

Still, the company issued a written statement saying: “Since the incident, Community Recycling has aggressively investigated the circumstances and reviewed its entire safety and training program to assure that this type of event will not occur again. Community Recycling continues its investigation into the incident and will evaluate the citations and findings made by Cal/OSHA once they are received.”

Courtesy of The Bakersfield CalifornianA family photo shows Armando Ramirez, who died at age 16 after cleaning out a stormwater drain on Oct. 12.

The facility is the largest of the more than 97 active, permitted composting facilities in California. It has been the focus of years of land-use violations, trash complaints, an order by Kern County to cease operations and a separate $2.3 million fine. A judge has allowed the Community Recycling site to remain open as it battles the county in court.

The facility had been taking food scraps from Los Angeles, Beverly Hills and other Southern California cities. Los Angeles stopped sending residential food scraps to Community Recycling in 2010, when Kern County informed the city that the company didn’t have a permit to accept the scraps.

Cal/OSHA officials said the 16 violations issued against Community Recycling were for failing to have an adequate confined space program and for failing to provide proper training, proper atmospheric testing and adequate rescue procedures.

Also, Cal/OSHA cited A & B Harvesting, a farm labor contractor, for failure to train employees about the hazards of working in confined spaces. A & B Harvesting had employed Heladio Ramirez.

“These young workers’ deaths were completely preventable," Cal/OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said in a statement. "Hydrogen sulfide gas is a fatal and common by-product of the composting process. Yet Community Recycling and Recovery failed to have proper procedures in place – identification and posting of all confined space hazards, training workers and supervisors, testing for dangerous levels of gas, and effective rescue procedures."

Filed under: Environment, Daily Report

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