Political Payoffs To Supervisors A Decade Ago Led To The Smoldering Pit Now In Hinkley

The environmental hazard and persistent nuisance of the now eight-week-long fire at the 80-acre compost pit at the Synagro facility eight miles from Hinkley and approximately 17 miles from Barstow is the legacy of political payoffs delivered from the waste reclamation company’s corporate predecessor to members of the San Bernardino Board of Supervisors.
Maryland-based Synagro Technologies currently operates a waste processing and sludge-to-agricultural-grade-composting operation at a location in the east Mojave Desert at 14479 Cougar Road in Helendale, which is roughly halfway between Helendale and Hinkley.Unbeknownst to many people, the incineration of a portion of the waste products that are trucked to the facility has always been a part of the plant’s operation. Those waste products originate from as far away as Rancho California, San Clemente, Santa Margarita, the South Orange County Wastewater Authority in Dana Point and Laguna, the Hyperion Plant in Los Angeles, Carson, Van Nuys, Corona, Redlands, Rialto, Morongo, Cabazon, Riverside, Beaumont, Mira Loma, Chino, Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear, as well as Adelanto, Barstow, Lancaster, Palmdale, Harper Lake and Moorpark. They include all order of organic materials, green waste such as tree and grass trimmings, as well as sewage system byproducts, euphemistically referred to as “half biosolids,” which are nothing more than partially-treated human waste.
Jeff Meberg, the president of what was then known as Nursery Products, Inc., began during the first decade of the Third Millennium to seek permission to put the conversion and composting plant in Adelanto. Because of opposition to the plant at that location, he spun his wheels until at last determining that if he were to grease San Bernardino County’s politicians, he could get clearance to proceed at a more remote location.
Meberg, a wealthy resident of San Clemente, made generous donations to the then-members of the board of supervisors, including Brad Mitzelfelt, Josie Gonzales, Gary Ovitt and Janice Rutherford. As a consequence, the board gave Meberg permission to proceed.
That permission was given despite penetrating questions that were raised with regard to environmental concerns. The Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental group, stepped in to assist HelpHinkley.org, a group dedicated to fighting environmental issues on behalf of Hinkley residents, in an effort to derail the project.
While the Center for Biological Diversity prevailed with regard to several battles pertaining to environmental considerations and succeeded in getting judgments in its favor, Nursery Products again and again neglected to make good on paying the judgments against it granted by the judges who heard the suits brought against the company, which included the requirement that it pay to cover the Center for Biological Diversity’s and HelpHinkley.org’s legal expenses.
While Nursery Products lost those battles, it won the war. Meberg, pleading financial hardship, claimed to the county supervisors, who were inclined to listen to him because of his generosity toward them and their electioneering funds, that his company could not pay for the mitigations that the environmentalists wanted in the design of the facility. One of those mitigations was putting a cover over the open-air waste pit that was the main feature of the plant.
Consequently, those design modifications that should have been logically applied were not incorporated into the plant because of the cost.
The facility was permitted to process 400,000 “wet tons” of material annually.
It is less than clear how much material actually comes in to the facility and how much compost goes out. Whatever those totals, far greater tonnages came in than a final product for use as compost was being created. What has long been ongoing is that the waste was simply dumped into a huge 80-acre hole in the ground. The vast majority of the material deposited there would dry out through evaporation in the hot desert environment, at which point it would be ignited. This represented the so-called processing the plant was credited with performing.
The problem is the oxidization of the material – its burning – created noxious smoke. Moreover, substances which were not supposed to be present in the waste material, including chemicals, plastics, inorganics and pharmaceuticals, as well as organic byproducts such as non-edible vegetable derivatives, fruit derivatives or meat derivatives, were dropped into the waste pit. Upon being burned, pollutants would be released into the atmosphere.
In 2020, Synagro Technologies Inc. was acquired by Goldman Sachs.
The management at the plant – whether it was under Nursery Products, Synagro or Goldman Sachs – was engaging in all of this unpermitted activity without the knowledge or consent of the Mojave Air Quality Management District. A calculation was that the remote location of the facility allowed such environmental crimes to go undetected. That calculation was relatively accurate. Nevertheless, those who lived close to the plant or downwind of it or who commuted through the area became aware of what was going on.
For quite some time, there were occasional complaints lodged about odors or smoke emanating from the plant. In the past there may have been instances where the fires in the waste pit defied, at least for a time, control and could not be doused. Eventually, though, they would be put out, in all known cases, in less than two weeks.
At some precisely unknown time, probably the last week of May of this year, a fire was lit in the pit that has yet to be contained.
Though the operations there previously were conducted outside official governmental scrutiny, since May 28 it has been widely known that the open-air pit has been on fire, with smoke pouring out of it, detectable, depending on wind conditions and visibility, as far away as Barstow.
There were 167 complaints about the smoke, odor and hazard from the smoldering feces and organics mix in June. So far this year, despite the facility being in a relatively obscure portion of the desert, it has attracted more complaints to the Air Quality Management District than any other single entity or facility.
The conflagration in the pit has given rise to anxiety that to those breathing the smoke, no matter how diffused, it represents potential damage to their lungs, vascular system, liver or other organs.
State regulators have now moved to assess fines against Goldman Sachs that presently total roughly $1 million. If the fire is not put out and other actions taken to redress code and health and safety violations, that fine will be ratcheted up to $2 million by the end of August and $3 million if the issues are not cured by the end of September.
Meanwhile, the politicians who took money from Meberg in exchange for allowing him to build the facility without holding him to any standard have gotten off scot-free.
Mitzelfelt, in whose First District the Nursery Products facility was located, in 2012 used the money that Meberg and other donors had given him to make a run for Congress. He was due for reelection as supervisor that year, but believed he had a chance to replace then-retiring Congressman Jerry Lewis. He placed fifth in that year’s Congressional primary, which meant he did not make into the November runoff. He had given up his shot at getting reelected to the board of supervisors in exchange for his Congressional run.
Ovitt in 2014 chose not to seek reelection.
Gonzales was reelected in 2012 and 2016. She was termed out of office in 2020.
This year, Rutherford is being termed out of office after having served three terms.
Mark Gutglueck

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