JOSHUA TREE A superior court judge ruled in favor of a Hinkley-based group that sought a stronger air quality rule for composting facilities. But according to a composting company that plans to build a facility near Hinkley, this ruling could ultimately help them.

The ruling, made by Judge John P. Vander Feer at the Joshua Tree Courthouse on Wednesday, rendered the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District's composting rule void, according to the Statement of Decision and Order Thereon. The judge ruled that the district had to prepare an environmental impact report, conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the best way to minimize emissions from composting facilities and come up with a new rule.

HelpHinkley.org filed the lawsuit against the air quality district in December 2008. The group has also been fighting for two years to keep Nursery Products LLC from building a sewage sludge composting facility eight miles west of Hinkley.

In his statement, Vander Feer said because the air quality district's composting rule wasn't as strict as rules in the Los Angeles basin or San Joaquin Valley, it's cheaper for composting facilities to be located in the High Desert, which could negatively affect the environment. According to the judge's statement, composting facilities in the Los Angeles basin are required to be enclosed and have an aeration system. Composting facilities in the San Joaquin Valley are regulated based on their size, Vander Feer stated.

Ingrid Brostrom, staff attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, which provided its services to HelpHinkley.org pro-bono, said now that the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District has to rewrite their composting rule, hopefully it will create a rule that will protect the environment.

"The public has been going to (the management district's) meetings for years now," she said. "They've been asking them for a strong rule, we hope this gives them the encouragement they need to recognize they can make a strong rule that is legally adequate."

Even though HelpHinkley.org is declaring victory because of Vander Feer's ruling, Chris Seney, director of operations for Nursery Products, said the judge's ruling really helps his company by removing an additional regulation. Eliminating the air quality district's rule, which Seney contends was very tough for the desert, just made it easier for composters to build, he said.

A supplemental environmental impact report for Nursery Product's proposed Hinkley site is currently undergoing public comment, Seney said. The public comment period for that report ends Sept. 13. If the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors approves the supplemental EIR, which Seney says will probably be in October or November, building the site can begin, he said.

"(This lawsuit) doesn't have any impact on Nursery Products whatsoever," he said. "It eliminates one layor of regulation."

HelpHinkley.org Chairman Norm Diaz said no rule would be better than the rule the air quality district wrote because that rule offered a financial incentive for composting facilities to build in the High Desert. HelpHinkley.org will work with the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District to rewrite its composting rule, Diaz, said.

"We will work with (the air quality district) and do whatever we can to help because we know sludge composters will be doing the same," he said. "I hope they listen to the judge."

Diaz said HelpHinkley.org will continue to participate in the public comment period for the Nursery Product's supplemental EIR. HelpHinkley.org will also work with the Lahontan Regional Water Board, which, Diaz said, Nursery Products needs a waste discharge permit from.

According to Seney, construction on the facility can begin without the waste discharge permit.

Because the Mojave Desert Air Quality Management District is waiting on recommendations from its attorneys, Community Relations Manager Violette Roberts said she couldn't comment on Vander Feer's ruling.

"Our attorneys are currently reviewing the judge's order and its implication," she said.

Contact the writer:
(760) 256-4123 or jcejnar@desertdispatch.com