By Malcolm Rivera for South Kern Sol
LAMONT — A town hall meeting organized by 5th District Supervisor Leticia Perez and Dolores Huerta was held on August 21 at the David Head Center, to update the community about recent developments in the controversy surrounding the Community Recycling & Resource Recovery (CRRR) facility, where two young workers, brothers Armando Ramirez, 16, and Eladio Ramirez, 22, lost their lives in October 2011.
The brothers were working in a drainage tunnel when they were overcome by fumes and taken to Kern Medical Center, where Armando was pronounced dead. His brother Eladio later died while receiving treatment at the medical center. The brothers were purportedly exposed to the chemical compound hydrogen-sulfide, which can be deadly in high concentrations. Family members blamed the company for providing insufficient safety equipment, namely painter’s masks and rubber boots.
After the incident, CRRR’s work contract was temporarily revoked by the Kern County Board of Supervisors, but later reinstated as a conditional contract by a judge, and according to Lorelie Oviatt, Kern County Director of Planning and Community Development, CRRR has not violated their conditional use permit since it was reinstated.
Supervisor Perez gave general updates about what the county is doing about CRRR, stating that legal action is more than a possibility. “I am not afraid to fight for what’s right,” Perez stated. The Supervisor went on to confirm that the date for legal proceedings against CRRR is to begin in early September.
While many residents wish to cut ties with CRRR completely, and as soon as possible, such a move seems unlikely if not impossible, given that Lamont and Weedpatch residents depend on the facility to recycle 2 million gallons of sewage per day. Currently, CRRR has a contract with the Lamont Public Utilities District (LPUD) and the City of Arvin.
One of the main points of discussion at the meeting was LPUD’s lack of a “plan B” for waste recycling. Currently CRRR is the only contractor that treats sewage from District 5, which includes Lamont and Arvin.
Nevertheless, LPUD has a deadline set for December of this year to come up with a plan B, due to a cease and desist order form the Kern Water Board.
Oviatt stated that any alternative to CRRR could be costly and result in higher water bills for residents in Lamont and Weedpatch.
“We have been unable to obtain an operator that can maintain current rates,” confirmed Perez.
Any new arrangement, added Oviatt, would not necessarily smell any better, either — long an issue for residents living near the waste facility.
Perez encouraged deliberation among the residents, stating, “This is your community…We want to know what you think is reasonable and ethical before we move forward.”
Anna Bautista of Lamont believes that the county and the residents should work with CRRR instead of fighting them.
“What happened to those boys was a tragic accident. But it was just that – an accident. We can’t let what happened cloud our judgment,” said Bautista.“There is no plan B for our sewage, right? So if we fight CRRR and make them give up their contract, then all of our water rates will go up because we will have to find another contractor. I can’t afford that.”
When considering whether to cut ties with CRRR, there is also the issue of what would happen to their approximately 120 employees, as well as the sub-contractors that depend on hauling compost on a daily basis for the facility. “One thing to think about is: ‘How do we have jobs, and how do we guarantee the health of the community?’” stated Oviatt.
Another resident, Michael Ramos of Lamont, had a different opinion on how to handle CRRR:
“It really seems like we are stuck between a rock and a hard place right now. We have to use CRRR to maintain rates, but we need to put ourselves in a negotiating advantage. I say, settle this out of court, and put them [CRRR] on a probationary contract, and come up with a plan B in a hurry to make sure we are in control of the situation.”
When talk of out of court concessions came up, Sal Partida from Committee for a Better Arvin suggested that anything less than taking CRRR to court would be unacceptable.
“I don’t think any concessions would be a justice for our children,” said Partida.
Other forum attendees asked what their communities could do to help bring a resolution to the issue.
Huerta suggested, “We all need to attend those LPUD meetings and light a little fire under those board members’ seats. We need that plan B.”
Oviatt agreed, stating, “It’s your board and your money. You need to go to the board and demand accountability.”
Perez said she hopes to organize more community meetings in the near future, to continue the conversation.