Al Sanders spotted a group of least tern on Ormond Beach in 1990. Sanders, surprised to see the bird thought gone from the area, stopped to confirm his suspicion.
“I ran into a biologist watching them through a spotting scope,” said Sanders. “She said that they’ve been gone from Ormond Beach for 40 years and they’re making a return, but they’re not going to make it.”
Sanders learned from the biologist that off-road vehicles had destroyed the habitat for the bird, and that nothing had been done to protect the sensitive area. In an effort to reverse the damage done, Sanders began erecting fences and battling off-roaders who would tear down his warning signs.
Twenty-four years later, after successfully convincing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to designate the area as protected, Sanders and the birds, including the snowy plover, are facing another issue, this time involving the western seagull attracted by an environmentally friendly operation nearby.
“It’s looking pretty bad,” said Sanders. “One of the reasons that they’re doing so poorly is that Agromin is an attracter to western gulls.”
In 2012, Agromin and E.J. Harrison & Sons began a program to accept compostable food waste that would later be turned into mulch for area growers. Since the program began, local hospitals, restaurants, schools, grocery stores and private businesses have sent their leftovers and food waste to the facility in Oxnard. Whole Foods and Marie Callender’s restaurant were a few of the early adopters of the program.
Agromin CEO Bill Camarillo said he believes that the program has been successful. Agromin is permitted to operate at Ormond Beach through March 2014, but Camarillo is asking the Oxnard City Council and the county to extend the permit for an extra three years in order to install and test new equipment, specifically a demonstration-sized anaerobic digester that would eliminate the need for diesel fuel and dissuade seagulls from gathering at the nearby beach.
The digester removes oxygen from mulch and inoculates the material with a liquid bacteria that breaks the food down and produces methane gas.
“The benefit of the technology is to mitigate issues because it’s all done in a closed system instead of outdoors,” said Camarillo. “Part of the challenge is, we need to permit the equipment so we can mitigate the issue by putting the material inside these containers.”
Currently, the food waste is placed under canopies and allowed to decompose before being blended with green waste such as lawn trimmings and landscaping debris. The finished product results in highly prized compost for farms and local growers, who use the Agromin product as an alternative to artificial chemicals and fertilizers. With the current process being outdoors and under canopies, it attracts seagulls, a fact that Camarillo says has been and is being dealt with.
“We’ve implemented a bunch of new strategies to deter these seagulls, but you’ve got to remember that we are by the beach. That’s where the gulls primarily come from,” said Camarillo. “We did do a biological report that we gave to the city and the county as part of our mitigation, and they’re making sure that we’re implementing every deterrent at our facility to keep them from migrating to us. They are becoming very effective.”
With the new equipment, Agromin can capture the methane gas emitted during the process to power the facility and remove the need for outdoor decomposition. Eventually, Agromin’s facility located on Limoneira Ranch in Santa Paula will receive a much larger version of the digester in order to begin accepting all food waste from western Ventura County.
Sanders, who is president of the Ormond Beach Observers and the chief strategist of Earth Alert, said that the project could be better located elsewhere.
“They missed the opportunity when they originally brought these guys in,” said Sanders. “By the time we knew what was going on, they’d already gotten their permits and it was too late.”
Oxnard City Councilman Bryan MacDonald said that the situation is delicate. While the program is beneficial and is much-needed for both the city and county, the location of the Agromin facility in correlation to the environmentally protected beach is an issue.
“Realistically, you have to ask if that is the best use for that type of land,” said MacDonald. “I’m not sure it is.”
One of the issues regarding the compost is the generation of heat, which can cause fires, resulting in runoff as the fire department extinguishes it. The California Mushroom Farm, plagued by fires that overtook the compost heap and burned for weeks, faced similar issues.
“The runoff could potentially carry stuff into the ecosystem that doesn’t belong there,” said MacDonald. “Probably the easiest would be to just put it in a secure facility, but then, are you able to handle the material or is it too confined?”
Agromin has been located near Ormond Beach since 2006, and is looking to expand its Santa Paula location after the implementation of the demonstration-sized digester at the Ormond Beach location. For Sanders, the balance between environmentally friendly technology and ecological preservation is a difficult issue to tackle.
“I’m not trying to put them out of business; I’m trying to find the right location for them,” said Sanders. “What I’d like to see is the county and city to work together to help them find a place. Then we can all live happily ever after.”