Kern County's Board of Supervisors, focusing more attention Tuesday on the Lamont composting business where two brothers were killed two weeks ago, scheduled a Nov. 15 public hearing on whether to suspend or even revoke the company's county-issued operating permit.
Their unanimous resolution to convene the hearing came after Cal-OSHA's top official told the board that her agency is conducting a thorough inquiry that could take months and may not be ready in time for the hearing, despite Supervisor Zack Scrivner’s request for an "expedited" investigation.
"We have a lot to uncover," Cal-OSHA Chief Ellen Widess said, noting that deaths such as the two that took place earlier this month at Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. are “totally preventable” and that she assumes citations will be issued as a result of the investigation.
Tuesday's meeting presented the first opportunity for employees of the composting facility to speak publicly about the accident.
Speaking in Spanish, two workers stood before the board to say that they needed their jobs and that they were unaware of unsafe conditions at the site.
"We very much need to work," four-year employee Jose Lara told county supervisors.
Near the end of the board’s morning session, more than a dozen company employees declined to speak to a reporter about safety conditions at the site. But one who did, two-year employee Silvano Piedra, said he thought conditions there were "a little dangerous." He specifically cited temperatures of up to 120 degrees inside loaders where he works, as well as toxic fumes rising from compost mounds.
Homero Bravo Espino, who has worked at the plant for four years and agreed to speak to reporters, said that while he does not oppose Cal-OSHA’s investigation, sometimes accidents are unavoidable.
Cal-OSHA says 16-year-old Armando Ramirez, working under the identity of a 30 year old, was cleaning out a drainage tunnel Oct. 12 at Community Recycling when he apparently inhaled a fatal concentration of hydrogen sulfide. His older brother, Heladio, who worked for Bakersfield labor contractor A & B Harvesting Inc., saw him lying unconscious and went down to rescue him, only to be overcome as well. Armando was declared dead that day, while Heladio was left brain dead and wasn't removed from life support until about two days later.
Board of Supervisors Chairman Mike Maggard directed comments to representatives of the composting business, Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc., when he said that "many, many questions are coming," and that the "full weight of responsibility" for the brothers' deaths will be borne "by someone."
Widess, the Cal-OSHA chief, insisted that there exist no immediate threats to worker safety at the plant, but that if the agency finds any, it will act without delay, as it did Oct. 14 when the agency closed access to the storm drains where the brothers apparently inhaled hydrogen sulfide. She said that order will stay in effect until the company can show the agency that the system no longer presents a threat to worker safety.
The office of the state labor commissioner and the U.S. Department of Labor have confirmed that they are investigating the deaths as well.
The company's lawyer, T. Mark Smith, told the board that the company is cooperating with investigators and that lack of access to the drainage tunnels will not hold up the operation. He also welcomed the public hearing.
“We appreciate the opportunity to focus on the facts, instead of rumor and hyperbole," he said.
Widess agreed that the company is cooperating, to the best of her knowledge, though the agency is waiting for the company to turn over certain documents.
Also Tuesday, about 30 protesters with the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment gathered outside the Board of Supervisors’ chambers at about noon. They held picket signs stating slogans such as “Recycling should not kill,” and chanted lines including, “Que Queremos? Justicia! Cuando? Ahora!” (“What do we want? Justice! When? Now!”)
Tom Frantz, a member of the group’s executive board, said the Board of Supervisors has the authority to shut down the compositing facility.
“They could do it today,” he said. “No excuse.”
“It depends on who dies, doesn’t it?”
Protester Ruth Martinez, who works with the United Farm Workers of America union, said she was disappointed that county supervisors failed to take immediate action.
“I think it’s sad that, you know, innocent people have to lose their lives for officials to do something to, you know, correct what is wrong,” she said.
Last week, state Sen. Michael Rubio, D-Bakersfield, called on the Board of Supervisors to shut down Community Recycling, saying that the company has repeatedly violated its conditional use permit.
The company’s lawyer, Smith, denied that Community Recycling violated the permit but acknowledged that its actions may have run afoul of land use rules.