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Hinkley files suit over sludge composting plant

Residents want to force San Bernardino County to enclose the planned facility, filter the odors.

March 30, 2007|Sara Lin | Times Staff Writer

Environmentalists and high-desert residents trying to stop an open-air sewage sludge composting plant from being built near Hinkley filed a lawsuit Thursday against San Bernardino County, alleging that it violated state environmental laws in approving the facility.

In February, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in favor of the project despite strong objections by residents worried about potential health hazards.

"We felt the Board of Supervisors didn't listen to us," said Norman Diaz of helphinkley.org, a citizens group fighting the project.

"As a community, we have complete opposition to this thing. We told them that every possible way we could think of, from protests to letters to traveling down there to speak to them."

The lawsuit, filed in San Bernardino County Superior Court, alleges that the county approved the composting plant without fully analyzing its potential impact on air quality and public health.

The suit also contends that the project doesn't adequately protect the threatened desert tortoise and the Mojave ground squirrel.

Apple Valley-based Nursery Products LLC plans to compost sludge -- the cake-like goop left over after raw sewage is treated at a sanitation plant -- on 80 acres of Mojave Desert about eight miles outside Hinkley.

Nursery Products representatives said the county did a thorough job in evaluating the project.

"All of these issues were raised a long, long time ago, and unfortunately there's no science behind them. The science shows the project is safe," said Christopher Seney, operations manager for Nursery Products.

Hinkley 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. Residents blamed serious health problems on the tainted water. Her successful fight was made into the movie "Erin Brockovich," starring Julia Roberts.

Residents of Hinkley and nearby Barstow -- communities that are downwind of the proposed facility -- fear strong desert winds will blow odors and bacteria-laden dust into the air.

But Alan Rubin, a former senior scientist for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, had testified before the county that residents' fears about getting sick from being downwind were unfounded.

Under the current plan, San Bernardino and Riverside counties could unload 400,000 tons of sludge per year at the facility.

The three groups that sued -- helphinkley.org, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Center for Race, Poverty and the Environment -- said their goal is not to stop the sludge composting plant, but rather to force the county to enclose the facility and filter the odors.

Nursery Products officials have said that option is too expensive.

"We want the county to require [Nursery Products] to use state-of-the-art technology to reduce air pollution and particulate matter," said Kassie Siegel of the Center for Biological Diversity.

"You can capture greenhouse gases. It's existing technology."

A lawyer for San Bernardino County said he had not seen the lawsuit and could not comment on the case.

Project opponents said they were concerned about the company moving into the high desert because of its history with Adelanto, where city officials sued in 2005 to close a similar facility after residents complained of odors and flies.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which had a switching station 200 yards from the Adelanto facility, also filed suit after workers' eyes itched and their noses ran because of dust and odors, said DWP Atty. S. David Hotchkiss.

Nursery Products representatives said they solved the odor and fly problems when they stopped accepting curbside grass clippings and green waste.

Company representatives said they decided to move to a new site rather than face a protracted legal battle.

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sara.lin@latimes.com

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