Feds investigate boy´s death at composting facility
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Oct. 14 — Federal officials have opened an investigation into the death of a 16-year-old boy who died Oct. 12 at a composting facility in Lamont, Calif., which also reportedly has left his 22-year-old brother brain dead.

Armando Ramirez of Arvin, Calif., was pronounced dead at Kern Medical Center, after apparently inhaling deadly levels of hydrogen sulfide fumes at a composting operation, The Bakersfield Californian reported. An autopsy is expected to be performed to determine the exact cause of death.

Ramirez´s brother, Eladio, and two other men also were overcome by fumes and taken to the medical center. Eladio is brain dead, family members told the newspaper.

Armando, Eladio and one of the two other men — whose names have not been released — were inside an 8-foot-deep drainage tunnel at Community Recycling and Resource Co. The third man was at the surface of the shaft and also inhaled the gas.

County officials told the newspaper that they detected a high concentration of hydrogen sulfide inside the tunnel – but did not disclose exact amounts. Hydrogen sulfide, also known as “sour gas,” is lethal at high levels and gives off an aroma like rotten eggs.

According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control (CDC), it has been reported that 170 parts per million (ppm) to 300 ppm is the maximum concentration that can be endured by people for 1 hour without serious consequences. Olfactory fatigue, the inability to discern odors, occurs at 100 ppm.

The CDC says sour gas at concentration levels of 500 ppm to 700 ppm may be dangerous in a half hour; 700 ppm to 1,000 ppm results in unconsciousness, cessation of respiration and death in a few minutes to a half-hour; and concentration levels of 1,000 ppm to 2,000 ppm results in unconsciousness, cessation of respiration and death in a few minutes.

The two brothers had recently complained to family members about strong odors at the facility and that they had been given only painters’ masks to protect them from the fumes, the newspaper reported.

A spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor told the newspaper that investigators began looking into the incident because Armando Ramirez is a minor.

Cal-OSHA is also investigating the incident, telling the newspaper that it will look at Community Recycling´s confined space entry program, as well as the company´s compliance with rules regarding monitoring of oxygen and methane levels.

Community Recycling’s Lamont plant produces soil-enhancement material by composting organic waste from items such as produce from grocery stores and tree trimmings. Hydrogen sulfide is considered a common byproduct of the composting process, Peter Bloom, controller at Liberty Composting, an unrelated recycling company in Bakersfield, told the newspaper.

Community Recycling is part of Crown Disposal Co. Inc., a 51-year-old, family-owned company based in Sun Valley. Crown operates and manages biomass-fueled power plants in the California cities of Firebaugh and Dinuba.

Contact Waste & Recycling News reporter Shawn Wright at swright@crain.com or 313-446-0346.

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