Desert composting facility plagued by odor complaints ordered to cease and desist

Citing odor issues, fire dangers and apparent violations of state law, San Bernardino County’s public health department has ordered a High Desert composting facility that processes sewage sludge and green waste from residents across Southern California to stop doing business.

The 80-acre Nursery Products facility, which is owned by the Maryland-based firm Synagro, started drawing headlines this summer as workers spent months trying to quash a fire that blanketed residents in the nearby communities of Hinkley, Helendale and Barstow with a stench of burning plastic mixed with smoldering sewage. Residents reported health complaints and layers of gunk settling over their homes.

Regulators said that rotting waste had spontaneously combusted deep in the composting pits back in May, after the facility accepted too much product – which is shipped in from Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties – and failed to properly manage it.

Officials finally declared that fire extinguished in mid-September. But county health officials said in a Sept. 29 cease-and-desist notice that, with current operation and storage practices, the facility still “poses a potential threat of fires or significant smoldering” that can harm “public health, safety, and the environment.”

The notice says there’s also an ongoing odor and nuisance risk at the site. And it states Synagro is in violation of waste management codes and isn’t operating according to its permits.

Until county officials see evidence all of those concerns have been addressed, the notice states the company faces fines of $10,000 per instance per day if it takes in any new product.

Synagro is “in close communication” with county health officials on the issue, company spokesman Layne Baroldi said Thursday via email.

“We are working with them to address their concerns, many of which have already been resolved or are in the process of being handled,” he said.

Baroldi didn’t elaborate on what sparked the cease-and-desist notice or what changes his company has made in response.

State regulators also have been monitoring the situation, per CalRecycle, which helps oversee composting operations.

Baroldi said they expect to resume composting at the facility soon. In the meantime, he said they are providing “uninterrupted composting services to communities we serve across Southern California through our other facilities in the state.”

Synagro also operates composting facilities in Kern County and in Central and Northern California. Baroldi didn’t specify where Southern California waste is now going.

Agencies such as South Orange County Wastewater Authority filled two trucks each day with leftover sewage sludge and trucked it 130 miles to reach the company’s High Desert facility. Sending it to the Kern County facility tacks on another 70 miles each way.

Sanitation experts say there has been an ongoing shortage of composting facilities in California. So taking one offline for an unknown amount of time is likely to cause other sites to become further strained.

That worries Norman Diaz, a Barstow resident who led a group opposing the Nursery Products facility as planned 16 years ago.

Diaz said the smell has gotten better in recent weeks, and he’s glad to see at least some action by regulators on the issue. But he said he doesn’t want the problem to simply be shifted to another community. Instead, he hopes this prompts regulators to finally require facilities like this to be more closely monitored and to be enclosed, to avoid odor issues, as his group suggested when the project was first proposed.

“This stuff is being produced, and it needs to be dealt with responsibly,” he said.

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