California’s air-quality regulator in the Mojave Desert has said it couldn’t do much to meet demands from hundreds of rural Barstow-area residents alleging they’ve faced myriad health problems from a more than three-month fire in the guts of an 80-acre biosolids pit a short drive from their homes.
But while the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District says it can’t shut down the sewage-composting factory run by Synagro Technologies Inc. — a Maryland firm owned by a private-equity arm of Wall Street giant Goldman Sachs Group Inc. — the agency is rolling out something of a consolation prize: an “extremely limited” supply of in-home air purifiers for 300 Barstow and Hinkley households, effectively paid for by Synagro.
The Mojave Desert AQMD sent a string of letters in recent days to various Barstow and Hinkley residents advertising the launch of a “Clean Air Rooms’ Pilot Program” with an offer “at no cost to you,” according to a copy of one letter reviewed by the Daily Press.
The offer is “open to residents of Barstow and Hinkley only” and covers two items, only one of which will be provided per household “while limited supplies last:”
One Winix 5300-2 air purifier kit
One Winix replacement filter for the 5300-2 purifier
The air regulator will host a “ONE-DAY ONLY pick-up event” for households it selects to receive an air-purifier package for two hours on Oct. 8, from 9-11 a.m., at the City of Barstow’s Public Works Yard (900 Avenue H).
AQMD spokesman Martial Haprov told the Daily Press the agency will give out 300 purifier kits with a replacement filter.
The letter notes that “funding for this program comes from the Mojave Desert Clean Air Fund.” In an email, Haprov said this translates to $49,916.25 “funded by fines and penalties collected by the Mojave Desert AQMD.”
The agency established the Mojave Desert Clean Air Fund in 2017 “for projects that provide positive air quality impacts on a local community” with a standard limit of $50,000 per project, according to its governing board policy.
By using money collected from fines, the AQMD is essentially paying for the 300 purifiers with a small portion of the total payout Synagro will likely make to settle two nuisance citations the air regulator issued in the first two months of the fire, on June 1 and July 14. The citations pose a bit less than $1 million in fines for releasing “air contaminants which cause a nuisance” unless Synagro strikes settlements promising to fix problems for lower penalties.
Those fines are separate from what could lead to a far larger cost of the fire at the officially-dubbed Nursery Products Hawes Composting Facility as hundreds of Barstow and Hinkley residents join out-of-town lawyers for lawsuits that are either already filed or planned against Synagro and Goldman Sachs.
When asked if the rollout of this program is an acknowledgment by the AQMD that the Synagro fire has caused some degree of damage to air quality in nearby homes, Haprov wrote: “No.”
The AQMD mailed a total of 111 letters with the air-purifier advertisement to addresses in Barstow and Hinkley, according to Haprov, who says “priority is reserved for residents/households who:”
“were impacted by the public nuisance MDAQMD declared on June 1, 2022;
and submitted a complaint in response to the nuisance that included a mailing address;
and replied to the mailer by the requested RSVP date.”
If any purifiers remain after that list of residents has been satisfied, Haprov wrote, “the equipment is available to Barstow and Hinkley residents on a first come, first served basis at the one-day-only event planned Oct. 8.”
“Supplies are extremely limited,” the flyer emphasizes.
Address verification is required for receipt of equipment, Haprov added. The flyer says this could come in the form of a driver's license, state ID, utility bill, or mortgage statement. It also says residents interested in getting a purifier can email their name, address, and phone number to email@example.com or write that personal info on the back of the flyer and mail it to the agency with a return form that must be postmarked by Sept. 30.
The offer isn’t satisfying everyone on the receiving end.
“They’re trying to cover their butts,” says Brandy Tripp, a lifelong local living in the northern area of Barstow where, along with the city’s eastern portion, residents have been hit hardest and most frequently by Synagro waste-pit fumes, based on dozens of local accounts to the Daily Press.
That echoes a critique numerous residents have leveled at all agencies involved in what they view as a confused response to their complaints of rancid air and resulting ailments since the first day of the waste-pit fire, May 28. A surge in air-quality complaints against the Synagro factory began that day, a Daily Press public-records request and analysis previously found, but no regulator or private entity public acknowledged the blaze until after a May 31 report by the Daily Press.
The Mojave Desert air regulator has been the most active in public meetings and formal actions among more than a half-a-dozen agencies involved in the response. It emphasizes that San Bernardino County’s public health department and CalRecycle have power over Synagro’s facility permit and, thus, the ability to shut down the site. In contrast, the AQMD’s power is limited beyond nuisance violations.
For residents Cathy Blevins, 69, and Jim Hood, 62, the offer isn’t worth as much, given the expenses they’ve already incurred.
Blevins, another lifelong Barstow-Hinkley resident, lives with her second husband Hood roughly one mile north of Barstow’s city limits and 15 miles east of the Synagro factory. The couple has been running three separate air-purifier machines in their home since July and says they plan to buy a fourth in the next month.
They hadn’t yet bought the third unit more than three weeks into the fire when the Daily Press visited their home for an interview. Still, they already had the first two purifiers running full-blast as Blevins shook off a cough she says emerged after a late-night wave of foul-smelling smoke hit her home. Hood sat in a recliner with plastic tubes bringing oxygen from a small tank on the ground into his nostrils, and a short walk to and from the bathroom prompted a brief spurt of wheezing.
Tripp’s family hasn’t yet bought any air purifiers, and while she remains disgruntled with regulators, she isn’t opposed to the AQMD’s new pitch and plans to vie for a spot among the 300 air-purifier recipients.
“I hope I get one. It would help,” she told the Daily Press in a text. “I’m sure next summer we will be going through the same thing.”
Charlie McGee covers California’s High Desert for the Daily Press, focusing on the city of Barstow and its surrounding communities. He is also a Report for America corps member with The GroundTruth Project, an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization dedicated to supporting the next generation of journalists in the U.S. and worldwide. McGee may be reached at 760-955-5341 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @bycharliemcgee.
This article originally appeared on Victorville Daily Press: Air purifiers offered to residents impacted by Synagro waste fire