Sludge composting plant near town made famous by Erin Brockovich wins approval

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A five-year battle over a sludge composting plant near the high desert town of Hinkley could be near an end. San Bernardino County supervisors Tuesday removed one of the last hurdles blocking the facility.

The county approved Nursery Products' conditional use permit more than a year ago. The company wants to process about 1,000 tons of biosolids a day at an open-air facility about eight miles from central Hinkley.

Biosolids are what's left over after chemical treatment plants process raw sewage. It'll get mixed with organic material and baked in the sun to create compost.

Opponents worry that the plant will generate toxic dust, increased diesel truck traffic and other problems. Nursery Products has long maintained that there's no basis for those worries.

The final obstacle to permitting had to do with how much water the company would use to keep dust from blowing across the desert floor. It promised to limit consumption to a little over 1,000 gallons a day.

"This is an environmental justice issue," said Hinkley attorney Bob Conaway. Opponents like Conaway echoed the sentiments of many people who feel their home turf could become a dumping ground. The desert town entered the spotlight 18 years ago after law clerk Erin Brockovich linked health problems there to contamination from a nearby Pacific Gas & Electric substation.

"Why should the Hinkley and Barstow area have a [lower] standard of protection?" Conaway said. "Because it's poor, because it has less density, because it happens to be open area with pockets of people living in it? So I submit to you that's critical and I think to have a lesser standard would be basically saying we deserve less, and that's unacceptable."

San Bernardino County supervisors voted three to one in favor of Nursery Products' revised water use plan. Supervisor Brad Mitzelfeldt, who presides over the district where the plant will be located, promised that the county will closely monitor the facility's effects on the area. Opponents have hinted that they'll continue to challenge the project in the courts.