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County to Charge PictSweet for Weeklong Compost Fire

Safety: Mushroom farm faces a bill of up to $100,000, and possibly more in fines, in connection with the lingering blaze that fouled the air. Company still suspects arson.

April 03, 2001|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — PictSweet Mushroom Farms will be charged as much as $100,000 by Ventura County for the costs of putting out a smoldering compost fire that spread pungent fumes and haze over the area for a week last month.

The Ventura County Fire Department collected information from seven local and state agencies that helped combat last month's blaze and will soon bill the company for expenses.

"We have a verbal agreement that they will pay our costs," Fire Chief Bob Roper said Monday. Those costs are estimated to be between $75,000 and $100,000.

The company also could face fines of up to $25,000 a day for violating air quality regulations.

PictSweet officials could not be reached for comment, but the company has suggested that the 3.2-acre fire was arson, not spontaneous combustion, as fire officials concluded. It has offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrests of anyone responsible.

Roper said fire investigators have tracked several leads on the company's arson allegations but have made no arrests.

Regardless of the cause, PictSweet has said it would cover the costs of putting it out, Roper said.

But PictSweet attorney Harry Stang said he did not know if the company had been notified of the firefighting costs and could not comment on what its reaction would be.

The fire broke out March 11 at the farm near Ventura in a pile of straw and manure used to fertilize mushrooms. The compost pile--which, if spread out a foot deep, would span 28 football fields--burned slowly, but firefighters were initially stymied on how to put it out. A foul-smelling haze wafted over the west county, forcing schools and senior centers to curb outdoor activities.

Firefighters worked around the clock to put out the fire by scooping compost into dump trucks and moving it to a larger field, where it was smothered with soil.

County environmental health officials said PictSweet may be fined. They expressed concern over the amount of compost at the site, which was three times the normal size because of a labor dispute that had caused sales to dip and production to slow.

"We are talking with the county counsel about what avenues we have on assessing penalties," said Keith Duval, compliance manager for the Ventura County Air Pollution Control District.

He said fines could range from $1,000 a day for creating a nuisance to $25,000 a day for negligence.

Abbe Berns, the county Fire Department's fiscal manager, said agencies hoping to be reimbursed by PictSweet include the Sheriff's Department, Air Pollution Control District and the county Environmental Health Department.

"PictSweet agreed from the start that they would pay all overtime and out-of-pocket expenses," Berns said. "They are also paying for dump trucks and bulldozers."

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