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Fire turns green waste into air pollution
A man who is part of a crew that was working all day Tuesday to extinguish the large composting fire on Frewert Road in Lathrop walks past mounds of still smoldering organic mulches. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

LATHROP – Manteca’s green effort fueled a fire that grayed skies and made breathing a challenge for those with respiratory problems.

Tons of lawn clippings, tree branches, and other garden debris collected from Manteca residents fueled the large composting fire in Lathrop. That fire has caused air quality concerns in Manteca, Lathrop, and surrounding areas for the past two days.

The Lathrop-Manteca Fire District announced late Tuesday that they expected the fire to be extinguished by today. Earlier, the fire district’s intent was to allow the fire to burn out on its own. However, the district decided after further assessment of the situation to have Valley Organics, Inc. extinguish the fire. That effort began at 9 a.m. on Tuesday. Crews wearing protective face masks were still working at 6 o’clock in the evening with water tenders drenching the mounds of compost that were billowing in heavy smoke. Other workers operating front loaders scooped up giants of smoldering debris which they then dispersed in the field around the countryside facility.

The commercial composting fire compounded the Air Alert notice sent out to the San Joaquin Valley Air Basin. The Air Alert episode could extend through Thursday and may be even extended to Friday. The Air Alert was issued due to the combination of atmospheric conditions that contribute to a build-up of unhealthy ozone layer or smog – along with high temperatures which are expected to push the century mark today according to weather predictions, a high-pressure system, and stagnant wind patterns.

The composting fire was a concern because smoke contains particulate matters, small pieces of airborne material such as soot and ash, which is a health hazard especially to those with such health concerns as asthma and emphysema.

In the fire district announcement issued through the City of Lathrop, fire officials are urging residents that are being impacted to take precautions, keep doors and windows closed so as to reduce the risk of smoke inhalation.

According to the Lathrop-Manteca Fire District officials, the fire started on Monday morning when fire ignited a pile of mulch at Valley Organics, Inc. The facility is situated in an area of unincorporated Lathrop where a number of ranches and horse-boarding operations are located, with open fields of ripening tomatoes and other crops on the north side of the road which dead-ends to the Haven Acres Marina at the San Joaquin River. One of the ranches located here belongs to former Manteca resident and sheriff’s marshal, Monte McFall.

The area where Valley Organics is located is still unincorporated county; however, it is within Lathrop’s sphere of influence.

David Gorton, management analyst with the San Joaquin County Solid Waste Division, said he and another colleague went to the composting fire site on Monday “to see if there’s anything we can do.”

He said they talked to Jed Phelps, the vice president of the company who informed them that the fire “started sometime the night before” when they received a call from someone telling them that there was smoke coming from the property. When the Valley Organics officials arrive at the scene, they found one pile of compost burning and immediately called the fire department, Gorton said.

Gorton said Tuesday during a telephone interview that the fire was “a controlled burn at this point” but that, “at one point, it was flaming. When I was there, the entire site was smoldering.” He added that the fire appeared to be “under control” at the time of their visit.

While talking to the Valley Organics officials, Gorton said they were informed that they did not know how the fire started. However, fires occurring at such facilities are “typically (caused) by spontaneous combustion,” or there was something in the load dropped off at the site that was not completely extinguished which then caused the fire. Someone could have wandered onto the property while smoking and their cigar or cigarette could have ignited a fire, Gorton speculated. Those things have happened before; however, investigations into what caused the fire are still inconclusive, Gorton said.

Green wastes from Manteca processed at Valley Organics

Gorton said Valley Organics, Inc., has been operating at the Frewert Road site for the last four years.

The facility processes organic materials that are composted at the site which come from Manteca, Gorton said. These include everything that’s in residents’ green waste bins, lawn clippings and other green waste. He said Manteca has a contract with Valley Organics.  The company also deals with the public such as landscapers who are charged a fee by the ton instead of taking them to the landfill.

“They (Valley Organics) make compost for gardens or for farmers to be used as soil amendments. So they collect money going in, and collect money by selling (the compost),” Gorton said.

A staff with the City of Lathrop said none of the green waste from Lathrop is taken to Valley Organics. Since this service is privatized in Lathrop, Allied Waste which provides this service to the city takes all the organic materials from Lathrop to the company’s facility on Austin Road near the landfill.

According to information from the City of Lathrop, the mulch at Valley Organics is primarily composed of green waste such as grass and tree clippings and measures approximately 200 feet by 300 feet at a height of 20 feet.