State hands down order for recycling facility where brothers died

State hands down order for recycling facility where brothers died »Play Video
Three people are rescued Wednesday, Oct. 12, 2011, from a drainage tunnel south of Lamont. A 16-year-old boy and a 22-year-old man, who were brothers, died from apparent gas exposure in the incident. (Photo from the Kern County Fire Department)

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — A Lamont composting facility has been ordered to keep employees away from a storm-drainage system where two brothers were overcome by hydrogen sulfide.

The new order issued on Wednesday comes with the current investigations into the fatal accident, meanwhile Eyewitness News hears from a former worker who says he had concerns with unsafe equipment more than a year ago.

The brothers, 16-year-old Armando Ramirez and 22-year-old Eladio Ramirez, were cleaning the underground drainage tunnel Oct. 12 at Community Recycling & Resource Recovery Inc. when they were reportedly overwhelmed by the toxic fumes. The teenager was the first to die.

The incident brought back haunting memories to Ramon Cervantes, who worked at Community Recycling for just under a year, starting in 2009.  Cervantes said he did a number of jobs at the site. 

The facility takes in various materials and turns that into compost.  Cervantes said he mostly loaded and loaded trash into trucks.  He claims the company loader he used had a lot of safety problems.  He worried about the equipment at the site.

"The machines didn't have brakes," Juliana Cervantes explains for her Spanish-speaking father.  "The machines didn't have lights, seat belts didn't work.  Proper equipment wasn't given to him."

The daughter said one truck didn't have a properly-latching door.  She worried about her dad's safety.  And, her father worried about the safety of other workers on the site.

Cervantes worked at night, and he related a close call with a co-worker fixing a grinder.   Juliana Cervantes said her dad's company truck didn't have head-lights, and neither did the grinder.

The daughter said because there were no lights, her dad's loader scoop came within inches of the other worker's face.  "I could have killed him," the father had told the daughter.

Cervantes said he told site supervisors about the bad brakes, but nothing was done.  The family said he was then fired in March 2010, and they believe that's because the company thought he had complained to Cal-OSHA.

Eyewitness News obtained a complaint that was filed against Community Recycling dated January 19, 2010.  That letter to the company from Cal-OSHA states the agency got a complaint about a lack of soap, paper towels and toilet paper.  The fourth complaint is over equipment.

"Loaders are not in good operation, brakes not maintained," it reads.  "No windshield wipers."  The letter from OSHA orders the company to investigate the alleged conditions, and respond to the agency.

Community Recycling responded in a letter dated February 15, 2010.

"We have performed a complete investigation and have found the alleged conditions to be not true," the response reads.  It adds that the company has workplace safety meetings and inspections.

Cal-OSHA spokeswoman Erika Monterroza confirmed to Eyewitness News that the agency did not come to the Community Recycling site and inspect the situation.  She said with "non-serious, informal" complaints like the one received in January, OSHA only randomly checks the accuracy of satisfactory company responses.

Eyewitness News asked Community Recycling for comments about the complaint, and got an e-mail statement from attorney Mark Smith.

"Community Recycling promptly complied with the request (from Cal-OSHA) and conducted a complete and thorough investigation into the allegation; however, the company found the complaint to be without substance and reported that finding back to Cal-OSHA," it reads.  "No other action was forthcoming."

The person making that complaint was never identified by Cal-OSHA,  that's their policy.

The Cervantes family said while they didn't file any complaint in 2009, they did contact authorities after their father was fired.  They complained about his dismissal and the equipment.  The family said they haven't heard back.

Juliana Cervantes said she worried about unsafe equipment when her father was there, and she blames that for the deaths of the two workers last month.

"My dad's out there working at night, and we don't know what's going to happen," the daughter said.  "Like those two guys that just died, they were probably not even given the right equipment."

The Cal/OSHA order on Wednesday, lists the entire storm drain system as off limits.  It orders the company to keep everyone at least six feet away from every opening to it. 

The order states the system was "in a dangerous condition, is not properly guarded, or is dangerously placed so as to constitute an imminent hazard to employees."

Eyewitness News also asked the Community Recycling attorney for a response to the new order.

That e-mail said the company had already covered the entrances to the storm drain system to prevent access.

"The company already has fully complied with this order and, in fact, took the action on its own following the October 12 incident," it reads.  "The company is fully cooperating with the investigation.  It's important to note that the order does not in any way impair Community Recycling's operation and the storm drain system remains fully functional."

The state had already ordered Community Recycling to not allow its employees to clean the storm drain.

Ramon Cervantes is still worried about the working conditions, and his daughter takes the same view.

"What can happen later?" Juliana Cervantes said.  "Somebody else can get killed with another machine.  It's my belief it's a company that should be closed forever, not opening again."