12:11 a.m. September 5, 2013

Welcome to Shitdump, California

BARSTOW, CA — I was in the middle of the Mojave Desert on my way home to Venice Beach after finishing NSFWCORP's grueling 24-hour radio show, when I remembered something I've been meaning to check out in this neck of the desert: a massive new shit-processing facility near Hinkley, a poor town about 40 miles west of Victorville.

If the name "Hinkley" sounds familiar, that's because it probably is. The town was immortalized in Steven Soderbergh's 2000 Oscar-winning docudrama "Erin Brockovich," in which Julia Roberts played a sassy LA lawyer/legal clerk who successfully sued California utility giant PG&E for poisoning the locals' underground drinking water. Turned out that for years a local PG&E pumping substation had been dumping a highly carcinogenic anti-rust agent called Chromium-6, which had then seeped underground and mixed with the town's water supply. Scores of people wasted away from cancer and other mysterious maladies as a result, while PG&E attempted to buy off the locals and suppress information about this from leaking out.

The real-life Erin Brockovich forced PG&E to pay out $333 million, the largest direct-action lawsuit settlement at the time. Meanwhile Julia Roberts snagged an Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Brockovich, allowing her to up her next film fee to $25 million.

As for Hinkley, most of the people involved in the PG&E lawsuit have died or taken the money and gotten the hell out. But the town's troubles were far from over.

When I moved to Victorville in 2009, Hinkley's remaining residents were fighting another looming toxic threat. A shady company called Nursery Products was set on turning 160-acres of dry desert on the edge of town into a massive open-air shit-processing facility designed to handle 400,000 tons of concentrated human feces every year, the output of roughly 1.5 million human digestive tracts

Sludge is a thick, black-brown pudding-like substance that's left over after raw sewage waste is filtered at a wastewater-treatment plant. And no matter what the sludge boosters say, it is Grade-A toxic stuff. Sludge — or "biosolids," as the sludge industry likes to call it — is more than just human shit; it includes all sorts of stuff that gets flushed down the toilet. Analyze it and you'll discover a diverse world of bacteria, viruses, parasites, worms, killer fungi, antibiotics, prescription drugs, heavy metals, PCBs (that's the plastic chemical that causes flipper babies), petroleum products and just about every type of industrial solvent known to man. Hell, some sludge even tests positive for radioactive waste. At the Nursery Product facility, all of that would be festering—or "composting"—right out in the open, a fetid, stinking mass laid out in rows 20 feet high, baking in the desert heat, periodically turned over with tractors.

Naturally, anyone living within a 30-mile radius of the proposed Nursery Products shit dump objected to the plan. The area is prone to high winds and powerful flash floods, which all but guarantees that its toxic, bacteria-infested sludge particles would be scattered by wind and water for miles around. Not only were opponents worried that the stuff would engulf Hinkley, with its 2,000 people, school, alfalfa fields and dairy farms, but that toxic sludge particles would surf the powerful desert wind all the way to Barstow, a city of 22,000 and a major thoroughfare for traffic moving between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. These concerns weren't theoretical. Nursery Products used to run a similar — but much smaller — sludge composting plant in a nearby desert town of Adelanto (the "parent trigger" school privatization city) in the mid-2000s, which it was forced to shut down after locals started getting horribly sick.

Yep, not long after Nursery Products came to Adelanto in 2002, parts of the city became engulfed by clouds of noxious odors and its residents assaulted by massive swarms of roving flies. People came down with ear, nose and throat infections. Children attending an elementary school near the sludge-composting facility started vomiting, suffered from dizzy spells and nausea, and developed nose bleeds and recurring headaches. Even workers from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, which has power lines running through the area, started coming down with bizarre symptoms.

Here's a downright scary letter that a local sent David L. Lewis, director of the National Whistleblower Center, in 2004 describing his experience with Nursery Products:

Dear Dr. Lewis,

I have read a lot about you and a lot about sewage sludge only after the fact that a co-composting plant moved in about 1 mile south of where I lived. Adelanto, Ca 92301. The owner said he is a Green Waste Facility and it is called Nursery Products. How misleading. The facility started Aug, 2002.

For the past year I had been having dizzy spells, problems breathing and bleeding sores on my arms and some on my face. I had been to my doctors several times and to the E.R. They never could find anything wrong, they would say it's probably stress go home and relax. I also ended up with a severe sinus infection that wouldn't go away with antibiotics and flushing my nose with sterile saline I was scheduled for sinus surgery (which I never had done) and then they thought it could be anxiety with my breathing problems they recommended some medication for that. I never got it. They did give me meclazine for my dizziness.

I never put all my symptoms together with the strong fertilizer/ammonia smell I was smelling usually at night, until an article in the newspaper and a council meeting on Nov 5, 03. Then things got worse and the smell got stronger and on Nov 23, 03 I was pumping gas at our local circle K, the smell was so strong it made you gag by the time I got home my face felt like it was on fire (like a severe sun burn). I went to urgent rare the next day, the Doctor told me to get out of Adelanto for a few weeks until my symptoms cleared up. I wish I had listened.

Things got even worse on Jan 16, 04 my blood work came back with slightly high liver enzymes which is consistent with Toxins in your body (I don't drink or smoke) Then on Jan 20, 04 I had a chest x-ray done it showed a black spot on my lungs. The doctor sent it out to a specialist to read it and I still don't know what it is. … On Jan 30, 04 I ended up at urgent care because I was wheezing so bad and could barely breath. They gave me a breathing treatment and strong antibiotic and entex. They said I had pneumonia/bronchitis. I found out that this is what most of the people are diagnosed with.

There were over 200 people at the council meeting on Nov 5, 04. Even young kids spoke to the council telling them they are so sick they can't go to school. So this is when I started doing my research and calling and e-mailing every elected official I could find, they all told me it's not their problem it is a city problem. I can't believe the mentality of these people when you talk to them, they are all in Denial or getting paid big bucks.

Nursery Products' Adelanto facility was such a huge clusterfuck that even the LA Times wrote about it in 2006:

Nursery Products has been run out of town before because of health concerns.

…The California Department of Health Services investigated the complaints in Adelanto. Although there wasn't enough data to determine if residents' health problems were caused by composting, the report concluded that some of the symptoms were "consistent with biosolid-related exposures documented in the scientific literature."

Schoolchildren at Bradach Elementary School, two miles from the Adelanto facility, suffered vomiting and increases in bloody noses and respiratory infections, school officials said.

A "black mass of thousands of flies" covered the school's outer doors and windows, according to then-principal Melva Davis. "On some days, the stench was so foul that students playing outside complained of stomachaches and headaches, and experienced vomiting," Davis said in a 2005 court declaration.

Employees at a Los Angeles Department of Water and Power switching station 200 yards from the composting facility also complained of health problems, and Los Angeles eventually filed suit.

DWP workers' eyes itched and their noses ran on account of the dust and odors, and employees had to wear beekeeping headgear to keep flies away from their mouths, eyes and ears while they worked on high-voltage equipment, said DWP attorney S. David Hotchkiss.

By the time I came out to Victorville in 2009, the anti-sludge resistance, which included people from the nearby town of Barstow and a suburban fake-lake enclave called Newberry Springs, had been fighting Nursery Products for about three years. The effort was being led by Norman Diaz, whose ancestors got a small chunk of desert farmland in Hinkley via the Homesteading Act. Diaz worked as a professional location scout in Los Angeles, but moved back out to the family plot and its decrepit frontier farmhouse with his wife so they could raise his kids out in a freer and healthier rural setting. And then Nursery Products showed up with plans to put a massive shit dump next door…

"This project would be illegal if done where the sludge was produced," he said. "We should not have any potential for the health, safety and long term happiness of our community. They will say it is only one third of the Inland Empire Sludge. I say that is the waste of 2 million people being carelessly dumped on a community of 30,000."

Norman was very good at organizing the resistance. Locals lobbied San Bernardino County pols, retained pro-bono representation from Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, took Nursery Products to court, generated local grassroots support and were fairly successful in attracting media attention. But no matter how much the law was on their side or how technically right they were, they could not stop the Nursery Products facility from moving forward. By the time I left, towards the end in 2010, it was becoming clear that Hinkley was waging a losing battle.

Although no one had any hard evidence, locals were sure that Nursery Products was part of some kind of bigger cabal, backed by powerful business and political interests. The fix was in: Hinkley had been chosen as the spot where coastal cities would dump its shit and that was it. There was nothing they could do about it. Their conspiracy theories were not so far-fetched…

In other words: Things didn't smell right, and it wasn't just the sewage.

Nursery Products appeared to be little more than a shell company that existed primarily on paper. It owned a plot of land, was financed with a federal small-business-association loan and four shadowy investors, and had a single owner, one named Jeff Meberg, who registered the company as an LLC at his home address. Nursery Products was barely a real company and there was no guarantee that it would survive its various legal challenges, yet it had already lined up multi-year contracts with a bunch of different cities and municipalities worth millions a year. The company had limited cash, but enjoyed a seemingly endless legal lifeline and boundless goodwill from the local San Bernardino County pols.

I remember trying to help Norman Diaz track down the shadowy interests backing Nursery Products, but the chase led down a bunch of rabbit holes and dead ends. It was as if Nursery Products was purposefully structured to obfuscate and hide ownership. At one point we traced it to a bigger national sludge/waste management parent company. But those links were inconclusive. Nursery Products was clearly connected to the local Republican political machine. One of its guardian angels was a hyper-evangelical San Bernardino County Supervisor by the name of Bill Postmus, who spiraled out of control in a peculiarly evangelical closet-case kind of way: being arrested for possession of meth while under investigation for all sorts of corrupt dealings and kickbacks. Postmus eventually pleaded guilty to fourteen felonies, including bribery, conspiracy, extortion and the misappropriation of public funds.

So…we never got very far in our quest to track down the man behind Nursery Products, but delving into the bowels of the sludge-disposal industry turned me on to the existence of a much bigger political struggle that went beyond Nursery Products and involved the biggest and most populated municipalities in Southern California. Put simply: coastal cities were running out of places to dump their elitist shit on the cheap.

The roots of this "problem" go back the 1970s, when stricter wastewater-dumping regulations were passed, forcing coastal municipalities to treat and filter their sewage before dumping it into the ocean. One thing that cities quickly realized was that getting rid of the filtered sewage sludge — the concentrated fecal putty that's left over after the treatment process — wasn't going to be cheap. Dumping the stuff in landfills or using it to generate methane gas were probably the two best methods, but these were also the most expensive options. The cheapest: to dump the sludge in the open air — either spreading it directly on fields as "fertilizer" or processing it in specialized outdoor "composting" facilities like the one Nursery Products was proposing. Such facilities were supposed to air ripen the sludge, turning it into a "safe" commercial fertilizer that can be spread on crops and sold to unsuspecting consumers at Home Depot.

Naturally, the sludge-processing industry gravitated to isolated, low-income regions where people were too poor, too tired and too powerless to do anything about the shit getting dumped on their doorstep. In other words: the economics of sludge processing followed the basic freemarket principle outlined in a memo by Larry Summers in the 1991, when he served as the Chief Economist of the World Bank: “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.”

With time, regulations tightened on outdoor sludge-processing facilities, making it harder and harder for coastal elites to dump their shit on the cheap. Today there are only a half-dozen facilities where Southern California municipalities can send their sewage sludge, and half of those facilities are in a different state.

A colorful map produced by Orange County's Sanitation District illustrates the situation very well. The agency, which is "responsible for safely collecting, treating and disposing the wastewater generated by 2.5 million people," trucks 33 percent of its sewage sludge to a facility in Kern County about a 150 miles away and 60 percent to two facilities on the Arizona border, around 200 miles away. Yep, you read that right: Republican Orange County dumps more than half of its Red State shit on two Red State counties in Arizona — something like 450 tons of shit daily! The scarcity of sewage dumps is so acute that Los Angeles had to resort to buying its own shit farm out in the Central Valley just so it could have a secure place to dump its feces. But even that plan is now under threat, as locals are trying to make it illegal for LA to dump its out-of-county shit on them. I wrote about some of this at length in my Oligarch Valley epic.

With this kind of scarce-resource shit economics, it's no wonder that Nursery Products had sailed through all its legal challenges so effortlessly. Every major municipality from Santa Barbara to San Diego saw it as their savior…their dark prince riding a shit-colored stallion.

*

When I heard a while back that Nursery Products had finally opened up for business, I decided to check out this savior of the sludge industry…

It wasn't easy finding the place. I couldn't find any signs, and the landscape outside of Hinkley was an endless, flat wilderness of rocks, desert scrub and a periodic Joshua tree. All I knew was that it was just off highway 58, a few miles west of Hinkley. So I crept down the road, scanning the barren desert landscape for signs of movement. I finally spotted something out on the horizon about eight miles out of town: a cloud of thick, brown dust and several plumes of black exhaust, as if from tractors or some other kind of heavy machinery.

And sure enough, I hit the spot. Driving down the dirt road towards the dust and smoke, I passed two big rigs that had just dumped their load and were leaving the facility.

As I got closer, I could smell the foul stench of rotting shit. Even though I was downwind, aggressive flies were on the scene in two seconds. A few of them got inside my car and took to dive-bombing my nose and eye…

I drove up the main gate and looked around. The shit-processing facility appeared to be in full swing. There were a couple of cars parked out front and two big tractors working the field out beyond. One of them pushed the black sewage sludge into rows and mounds, while the second the tractor dragged some kind of huge black cylinder to fluff and flatten them or something. There was also a water tank, a trailer/office and some of other kind of heavy farm-type equipment, but not much else.

When I attended a county hearing on the Nursery Products facility back in 2009, a company rep talked about all the modern safety features that would be built into the site. But all I saw was a massive chunk of desert that had been leveled and graded and filled with glistening black sludge piled up in rows. I was surprised by the simplicity of the operation. This is what it takes to dispose of the concentrated human and chemical waste produced by two million people? Just dump it in a clearing and bake it dry in the sun?

Not a bad gig when you consider that a recent contract to dispose of the shit of 65,000 residents of San Clemente — the Orange County beachfront city where President Nixon had his "Western White House" vacation residence — brings in a cool $1 million a year. Nursery Products doesn't seem to be operating at anywhere near its full capacity, but with these kinds of numbers it could expect to make somewhere around $30 million a year if ever does.

Turning shit into gold—and all you need is a huge plot of land. That's American entrepreneurship for ya!