The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday voted unanimously in favor of a proposed sewage sludge composting plant that would be built eight miles outside the high desert town of Hinkley, despite strong objections from residents worried about potential health hazards.
"I think this will end up being the best project possible under the circumstances," said Board Chairman Paul Biane.
The town was made famous by activist Erin Brockovich, who helped force Pacific Gas & Electric Co. to pay a multimillion-dollar settlement for allegedly polluting the town's groundwater and causing serious health problems for residents. That successful effort was later made into the movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts.
Supervisor Brad Mitzelfelt, whose district includes Hinkley, said he wasn't convinced that composting sludge would harm the community.
"The project, as I see it, is a cost-effective and environmentally efficient way to recycle biosolids and green waste. It's a benefit to the county; it will save landfill space," he said.
The supervisors voted 4 to 0 in favor of the project. Supervisor Gary Ovitt was absent and the only supervisor not to vote.
Apple Valley-based Nursery Products LLC plans to compost sludge -- the cake-like material left over after raw sewage is treated at a sanitation plant -- on 80 acres of Mojave Desert outside Hinkley.
Residents of Hinkley and nearby Barstow -- communities that are downwind of the proposed facility -- fear that strong desert winds will blow odors and bacteria-laden dust into the air, making people sick. Under the current plan, San Bernardino and Riverside counties could unload 400,000 tons of sludge per year at the facility.
About 120 people -- middle school children wearing anti-sludge T-shirts, elected officials from Barstow and Hinkley residents wearing cowboy hats -- made the two-hour trip south to attend Tuesday's often-tense meeting.
"You tell me that if your kids and your family lived downwind of this thing that you wouldn't be standing where I'm standing," said Hinkley resident Norman Diaz, his voice cracking as he spoke against the project.
His 7-year-old twin sons stood beside him as he addressed the board.
"It's just too dangerous; it's just not worth the risks. This is a bad project that needs to be stopped."
A lawyer for Nursery Products, David Hagopian, at times heckled by the audience, assured the board that composting did not pose a health threat to desert residents.
Residents say they wouldn't mind Nursery Product's composting plant so much if the company would enclose it and filter odors. Nursery Products officials have said that option is too expensive.
Diaz said that Hinkley residents, crushed by the board's decision, cannot afford to file a lawsuit to block the project.
"We've spent all our money," he said.