Suit Filed Against Goldman Sachs Over Continuously Smoldering Desert Disposal Pit

Thirty-one residents of the High Desert, represented by two San Diego-based law firms, have sued Synagro Tecnologies and its corporate ownership, the American multinational investment bank
Goldman Sachs, citing the environmental havoc from the fire in its unenclosed waste pit that has been burning out of control for close to two-and-a-half months.
On behalf of Catherine A. Blevins, Barbara Bryson, Alice M. Carrigan, Theresa Carter, Judy Ceja, Guadalupe Ceja, Veronica Davila, Terry Deaton, Justine Dellavecchia, April Evans, Mariah Evans, Patricia A. Evans, Andrea M. Figueroa, Jeff Gerhart, Norman Halstead, Delfina Harrell, Alexandra Hendley, James Hood, Brianna Hoody, Brooklyn Hoody, Erica Jackson, Dorothy Ann Jackson, Sean E. MacDonald, Sandra Martin, Daniela Natale, John Natale, Carlos Ozuna, Helen Ozuna, Bryan Douglas Powers, Ilean Sanchez, and Lisa R. Sollars, attorneys Natasha N. Serino, Alexander M. Schack and Shannon F. Nocon of the Schack Law Group and Gregory J. Hout filed suit, alleging negligence, strict liability for ultrahazardous activity, trespass, public nuisance and private nuisance. Named as defendants in the suit are Synagro Technologies, Inc. and Goldman Sachs Group, Inc., as well as Nursery Products, LLC and Synagro-WWT, I.Beginning some 17 years ago, near the midway point of the first decade of the Third Millenium, Jeff Meberg, a wealthy resident of San Clemente, founded a company he called Nursery Products, Inc. and scanned the Southern California horizon for a location where the political leadership would be lame enough to allow him to set up an operation to which he might import waste products originating 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, and there set up a composing facility. The waste products were to 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.
Meberg settled upon the City of Adelanto, which had a history of dysfunctional city councils he believed he could buffalo into approving his plan. When Adelanto officials resisted after a small but vocal band of the city’s residents took stock of what Meberg was attempting to do, he shifted gears, resolving to grease San Bernardino County’s politicians, correctly calculating that by doing so he could get clearance to proceed at a more remote location.
Meberg made generous donations to the then-members of the board of supervisors, including Brad Mitzelfelt, Josie Gonzales, Gary Ovitt, Paul Biane and later and Janice Rutherford. As a consequence, the board gave Meberg permission to proceed with the 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 eight miles from Helendale and eight miles from Hinkley and approximately 17 miles from Barstow.
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, 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 issues 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’s legal expenses.
Even though Nursery Products lost those battles, it won the war. Meberg, pleading financial hardship, claimed to San Bernardino County’s 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.
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.
It is less than clear how much material actually comes 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 November 2016, Synagro Technologies, Inc. acquired Nursery Products from Meberg.
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 section of the desert, it has attracted more complaints to the Air Quality Management District than any other single entity or facility.
In June, the Mojave Air Quality Management District issued a citation, coupled with an order that Synagro extinguish the fire in the pit. The company did not comply.
On August 4 Serino, Schack, Nocon and Hout filed suit on behalf of their 31 clients, alleging that the “Defendants have operated the facility in an unreasonable, unsafe and dangerous condition,” such that the operation “has been out of compliance with state and county regulations and contained dangerous conditions that posed a foreseeable risk of harm to plaintiffs. Among other things, the facility has repeatedly accepted excessive waste tonnage beyond the daily maximum… processed unpermitted forms of waste, allowed waste and litter to accumulate on its property, and engaged in unpermitted off-site dumping. The conditions at the facility were inherently dangerous, created sanitary risks, and pose a continuous threat, annoyance, nuisance and harm to the public. Despite knowledge of the dangerous conditions that existed at the waste facility, defendants failed to disclose this information to plaintiffs or the public. Defendants also failed to take any steps to correct the conditions.”
According to the suit, “On or around May 28, 2022, an uncontrolled fire began at the facility. As result of said fire and the other dangerous conditions at the facility, the facility has and continues to emit smoke, noxious or offensive gases, odors, pollutants, toxins, physical or particulate matter, contaminants and/or chemicals within at least a 25-mile radius surrounding the Nursery Products Hawes Composting Facility.”
According to the suit, “Plaintiffs have been subjected to noxious air from pollutants, chemicals, particulate matter, contaminants and toxins caused by the fire and by defendants’ failure to maintain the facility in a reasonably safe condition. The exposure to the smoke, noxious or offensive gases, odors, pollutants, toxins, physical or particulate matter, contaminants and/or chemicals, has caused significant injuries to plaintiffs including but not limited to breathing problems, chest tightness, burning eyes, headaches, nausea, sinus issues, coughing and/or a myriad of other illnesses.”
Serino, Schack, Nocon and Hout maintain that “Due to the nature of the waste processed at the facility and the contaminants involved, defendants’ operation of the waste facility is an ultrahazardous activity. If not operated in a reasonably safe manner, there is a foreseeable risk of harm to the surrounding public. Since at least January 2022, defendants have been operating the facility in an unreasonably dangerous manner. This includes accepting excessive waste, failing to control fires at the facility, improperly dumping waste off site, putting mixed waste and unpermitted waste into the composting pit, allowing waste and litter to gather on the property, processing unacceptable forms of waste, and operating the facility in a manner that causes smoke, noxious or offensive gases, odors, pollutants, toxins, physical or particulate matter, contaminants and/or chemicals to emanate into the surrounding area and enter the properties of plaintiffs.”
Furthermore, according to the suit, “As a result of defendants’ failure to operate the facility in a reasonably safe manner, the waste pit caught fire on or around May 28, 2022 and has since fueled embers, smoke and emissions in the area surrounding the facility. It has resulted in extreme noxious air for areas within 25 miles from the facility and beyond, including in Hinkley. The conditions at the facility and their effect on the surrounding area have also fueled complaints of ailments by members of the public who live and/or work in the areas surrounding the facility. Residents in this area have reported pungent and unbearable odors, smoke and matter in the air. There have also been reports of headaches, nausea, respiratory problems and animal illness. The facility has a history of dangerous conditions and ignoring State regulations. As further alleged herein, throughout 2022, defendants have repeatedly violated State laws and regulations and have been cited for violations multiple times by government agencies, including but not limited to the County of San Bernardino and the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District.  In violation of California Public Resources Code § 44002, the facility received more than the maximum daily tonnage of 2,000 wet tons on multiple occasions between April 2022 and June 2022. According to a San Bernardino County Environmental Health Services report (filed June 24), defendants exceeded the intake limit on multiple occasions before the fire started, including multiple times the week of the fire. Alleged intake violations occurred on April 1, 5, 6, 7, and 11, 2022 and on May 10, 12, 17, 20, 24, 25 and 26, 2022.”
The suit maintains, “Defendants have also processed and continue to process unacceptable forms of waste. Between November 2020 and April 2022, the County of San Bernardino cited the facility for approximately 39 health and safety code violations. Among one of the repeated violations was defendants’ practice of contaminating its pit with unpermitted forms of waste including mixed waste, raw sewage, industrial materials, mixed demolition and construction debris, plastics, food material and/or brewery waste. The facility, however, is only allowed to accept two forms of waste: biosolids and green materials. On information and belief, defendants have also added fresh waste to processed compost that was about to be shipped out. Despite the prohibition on certain wastes, defendants have accepted and processed brewery muck, which includes spent barley or rice malt. This material is considered food material and is not a permitted form of waste for the facility. In April 2022, San Bernardino County raised concerns after the facility accepted unapproved brewery waste from the Anheuser-Busch’s Van Nuys brewery north of Los Angeles. Nevertheless, the conduct has continued.”
The lawsuit continues, “Defendants have also engaged in unauthorized dumping of harmful material. On information and belief, since approximately June 2022, defendants have been trucking rancid material off site and dumping it in unmarked areas in the Mojave Desert and in unpermitted areas. In addition, defendants have been cited for repeatedly failing to prevent off-site litter migration into the surrounding desert ecosystem. In particular, defendants have failed to clean up prevalent film plastic litter, which has been found on the northeast of its property and frequently blows toward Hinkley. Defendants knew or should have known that the facility was accepting excessive waste, accepting waste with excessive contamination levels, processing unacceptable forms of waste, allowing litter to accumulate on the property and failing to control fires at the facility.”
According to the complaint, “The conduct of defendants was oppressive, malicious, and despicable in that it was intentional and done in conscious disregard for the rights and safety of others.”
The suit seeks a judgment against the defendants, an order directing Synagro to comply with California law, including the California Public Resources Code, and the California Code of Regulations, repair, compensation for depreciation, and/or replacement of damaged property as well as loss of wages, earning capacity and/or profits or proceeds. Also sought are medical expenses, medical monitoring, legal expenses and attorney’s fees and other damages.
-Mark Gutglueck

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