County landfill workers, managers clash over validity of Cal/OSHA citations
The men who operate the heavy equipment at Butte County’s Neal Road Sanitary Landfill know all about dirt. They spend their days in a dusty place moving around garbage and trash. They understand they’re going to get dirty.
But there’s a difference between dirty and dangerous, they say, and this past summer, when they were asked to bury approximately 5,600 tons of wet sewage sludge, working at the landfill became dangerous, several of them told the CN&R.
As evidence, they pointed to two citations issued Oct. 15 by the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health, or Cal/OSHA, in response to their complaints and following a July 20 inspection.
One citation faulted the county for not providing training on the hazards of the sludge, the procedures needed to prevent exposures, or the equipment required to control the hazard. The second charged the county had failed to provide “washing facilities for personal cleanliness … in a reasonably accessible location. …” In other words, if a worker got the sludge on his person, there was no way to clean it off.
(A third citation, unrelated to the sewage sludge, faulted the landfill for expecting workers “to remove auto batteries and other corrosive materials from the municipal waste” without supplying them with adequate eye- and face-washing equipment.)
The citations don’t tell the whole story, said the workers, who asked that their names not be used because they feared retribution. The citations don’t begin to describe the irresponsible way fecal water and waste were slopped about, getting on the roads and equipment and putting the employees and, to some extent, the general public at risk.
Nor does Cal/OSHA convey what the employees insist was management’s brush-off when they came forward to express their fears about the way the sludge was being handled. As one employee put it, “They blew us off. Told us it was safe and to go back to work.”
Several of the workers say they later became sick, with fevers and diarrhea, but so far there’s no documentation of a relationship between the sludge and their illnesses, said Dr. Mark Lundberg of the county’s Department of Public Health.
The workers, however, worry they may have been exposed to a disease such as hepatitis whose symptoms may not appear for months or even years.
They also note that the landfill’s own safety-training manual on blood-borne pathogens points out that the nasty germs can be brought to the landfill in several ways, including “sludge, sewage or septic tank waste….”
Although management has added a washing station and boot-cleaning trays, increased training and become more proactive about requiring employees to wear personal protective equipment (called “PPE"), the complaining workers say they simply don’t trust their bosses.
As one man put it, “We were treated as less than human.”
Many readers may not realize that most of their sewage ends up at the landfill. The waste processed at the Chico and Oroville wastewater treatment plants arrives as relatively dry material ready for burial, but the rest comes in as wet waste pumped from septic tanks. That includes the tanks serving the more than 50,000 people in the Paradise and Upper Ridge areas.
That’s a lot of crap—literally.
It goes into a series of primary receiving ponds located just downhill from the current commercial and public tipping floors, where garbage and trash are dumped and then moved around and smashed down around by huge bulldozers.
The water in the ponds is allowed to evaporate, and the solids collect at the bottom. This year, for the first time since the ponds were constructed in 1993, they needed to be cleaned out to make room for new septic waste.
The process didn’t begin auspiciously, the workers state. In early April, one of the site supervisors used an excavator to begin removing the tules that grow in the ponds. The vegetation was scooped out, loaded into a haul truck and taken directly to the tipping floor for burial.
Sewage water—"fresh shit, right out of the sewage truck,” as one worker described it—sloshed out of the truck onto the road and the tipping floor and got all over the equipment.
This bothered the employees, but “everybody [in management] said it was fine, even though they were dumping it all over the floor,” a worker said. As many as six employees were “boisterous” in their complaints about this, they said, but to no avail.
About this time, a representative of the Regional Water Quality Control Board came by the landfill to do a routine check of monitor wells in the vicinity. Seeing the work going on, he asked whether the sludge had been tested lately for contaminants. Told it hadn’t, he required that testing be done before the work continued.
Bill Mannel, the manager of the landfill, said the county’s “primary data” all indicated the sludge met state requirements for processing. Still, he shut down the operation until the test results came back.
Meanwhile, Mannel said, excavators began pulling waste from the ponds and arranging it in windrows on adjacent shelves so it could drain and dry in the sun.
When the test results came back saying the sludge could be processed, an outside contractor, JND Thomas of Stockton, was brought in. The operation involved centrifuging the sludge to remove water and screening out solid-waste items such as vegetation, tampon applicators ("hillbilly whistles,” as one worker called them), syringes and condoms.
From June 4-28, as many as 25 truckloads of sludge were moved each day from the processing area to the tipping floor, where the material was then buried. County officials, from interim Chief Administrative Officer Starlyn Brown on down, insist the waste was handled responsibly, but the workers don’t agree. The first runs, especially, were “the consistence of gravy,” as one man put it, and the sludge was spilling everywhere.
Several workers said they were either splattered with it or walked in it. One man got so dirty Mannel sent him home to clean up—because there was no place to do so on site.
Eventually the workers took their complaints to Cal/OSHA.
For his part, Mannel believes the workers overestimated the danger from the sludge. “Unfortunately, we’ve had a couple of employees who are really agitated because they didn’t have the knowledge to understand the material,” he explained.
He acknowledged that early on, when the vegetation was removed, “in some cases it splashed.” The site supervisors “should have called a time out,” he said. But following the RWQCB’s visit, the new work plan was drawn up and the process was handled appropriately.
The workers did get training, he added, but it had taken place sometime in the past, and they were “defaulting back to those trainings.” The employees also had adequate protective equipment. He said he did hear, though, that “the supervisors on site weren’t always requiring them to wear it.”
Mike Crump, director of Public Works, which oversees the landfill, acknowledged that some of the sludge “was probably too wet to dump. But we suspended that and came up with a different process, using windrows, that allowed it to dry more before burying.”
For the workers, management’s poor handling of the sludge and refusal to take their concerns seriously became the last straw. Working conditions had been bad for a long time, they said. For years they’d had no separate break room and had to eat in a work area. And what water they had for cleaning wasn’t potable, contrary to OSHA regulations.
Crump acknowledged that the break room had taken a long time to build, largely because the county tried to save money by using in-house crews. It also took a long time to get PG&E to extend power to the site and to build a water system. But it’s done, he said, and it’s a nice room, air conditioned and clean.
In August, after complaints had been filed with Cal/OSHA, county officials convened a big “Come to Jesus meeting,” as one worker called it, at the landfill. Officials from Environmental Health, Public Health, Public Works and the CAO’s office were there, as were landfill employees.
Management was looking for a way to put the issue behind them and convince the workers that things would be better in the future, but the workers wanted to express their grievances. To this day, they don’t think they were really listened to.
“I thought we made progress as far as identifying the issues and having a better process,” Crump said. But he acknowledged that “we lost some trust during this process.”
One major change was to move Mannel and the site engineer from their offices at County Center out to the landfill, so they could be there full-time. The hope is that this will foster better communication.
The workers are skeptical. They hold Bill Mannel primarily responsible for the sludge fiasco and don’t think he’s been held accountable. They don’t trust him and don’t like working under him. “We don’t trust him to do it right next time,” one of them said.
Mannel remains adamant that the workers’ claims are unjustified and that nobody has been injured. “Everybody,” he said, meaning all the public health officials who have studied the matter, “came to the same conclusion that there wasn’t a problem with workers being exposed.”
Although the fines Cal/OSHA levied for the citations were miniscule, only $560 each, the county has decided to appeal all three of them. Steve Weston, the county’s safety officer, said the purpose was to obtain clarification, not dispute the charges. “We want elaboration on how the problems can be solved so they never happen again,” he said.