More Napa Valley wasteworkers raise concerns about a history of unsafe conditions at dump sites

Twenty-four former and current employees of the waste management company serving the upper Napa Valley have submitted a joint complaint to a state’s environmental regulator alleging unsafe practices.|

Twenty-four former and current employees of the waste management company serving the upper Napa Valley have submitted a joint complaint to a state environmental regulator alleging unsafe practices.

The complaint, sent to the California Environmental Protection Agency and copied to other agencies, including the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Mexican consulate, accuses Upper Valley Disposal & Recycling Services of “unsound environmental practices.” It also alleges unsafe and discriminatory conditions for workers at waste sites.

“As workers at (Upper Valley Disposal Service) and Clover Flat Landfill we have been exposed to all manner of contamination related to garbage and recycling, often without proper training or proper protective equipment,” the grievance states.

The workers also allege they were not made aware of the hazardous conditions or their rights to push back, and that many, particularly those without citizenship, feared retaliation or termination if they reported issues.

In recent months, some workers have also filed related complaints with the California Civil Rights Department claiming the company discriminated against Latino waste workers by subjecting them to environmental toxins, unsafe conditions and unfair treatment.

“Bottom line, Latino workers were forced to do illegal and unlawful activities affecting the environment and affecting their health,” said Jose Garibay Jr., a former operations manager at the Clover Flat Landfill who filed his own complaints with regulators earlier this year, including for wrongful termination. His demotion and then firing in April 2022, he said, stemmed from speaking up about problems at facilities to management.

The allegations primarily pertain to conditions and events that occurred under the waste management company’s previous owner. The Upper Valley Disposal & Recycling Service and Clover Flat Landfill sites, which sit in the hills near St. Helena and Calistoga, were owned and operated for decades by the local Pestoni family.

Last year, they sold to Waste Connections, Inc., one of the nation’s largest waste management firms.

A history of fires and water contamination incidents at the waste sites, and the Pestonis’ long-term exclusive contracts to serve the area, led some advocates in recent years to sound alarm bells about the risks to surrounding agricultural lands and communities in the wildfire-prone area.

Geoff Ellsworth, the former mayor of St. Helena, has been a particularly vocal critic, pressing local officials and requesting investigations by county and state regulators. He is also involved in the current push by current and former waste workers.

Christy Pestoni, former chief operating officer for Upper Valley Disposal Service, referred questions to Waste Connections official John Perkey. She has previously said that the allegations against the company have no merit. She noted that the landfill had passed compliance checks performed by local and state agencies and was found to have corrected past violations. She added, too, that the company had invested $17 million in capital improvements and equipment between 2019 and 2022. Pestoni now works as part of Waste Connections’ local operations team as director of government affairs.

Perkey, who serves as vice president and deputy general counsel in compliance and government affairs for Waste Connections, said Tuesday that in the last year, the company has been notified by the state of two complaints with the California Civil Rights Department and that additionally they’d received private communications, which includes attorney letters, from two former employees. Garibay and Ellsworth say several more have been filed.

Perkey said the company was working on an outstanding violation with water regulators and recently resolved issues with the air quality regulators. Waste Connections “hadn’t received any notification from any regulatory agency in California” about this latest complaint, he said, and he was unaware of it.

“We’re always concerned about our employees’ safety in all the actions that we take,” he said. “That’s who we are as a company. We’re always happy to evaluate, and we want to know about these kinds of allegations, and then we will make evaluations as to what’s actually happened on the ground.”

The wide-ranging complaint filed by former and current staff this month covers air quality, toxic contamination, and other risks related to fires and other issues at the dump sites.

For instance, workers claim that under previous management, liquid leachate, or contaminated wastewater, that they say should have been trucked out for treatment was instead recycled and used at the facilities.

Garibay said that under the new owner, this practice has reportedly changed, which led some workers to “realize the old company was not doing the right thing.”

Allegations also centered on the handling of the 2020 Glass Fire, which tore through Napa Valley and parts of Sonoma County. Several complainants said they were part of a crew directed “to clean up the aftermath of the Glass Fire impacts, including fire suppression for hot-spot fires with untreated leachate wastewater, felling still burning trees, running heavy chainsaws, wood chipping, hauling … all to be done without training or proper safety equipment in compromised air quality due to the ongoing fires in the area and impacts to the landfill facility.”

Garibay was part of that all-Latino team, and he said they had little understanding of the risks or protective measures they should have taken. He contends the work should have been handled by fire professionals and trained hazardous material workers.

“We were deployed up there with no training, no protocol, no advice, no anything, just ‘Go, and do the job,’” Garibay said. “We were not supposed to be there.”

Perkey said he was aware of allegations regarding the Glass Fire. “I cannot say I’ve looked at them specifically other than to say that I know that the prior owner coordinated with the State Fire Department, local fire department and with CalRecycle related to the operations at the facility.”

On the issue of leachate contamination, he said he couldn’t comment on whether there’d been a change in process for handling wastewater under Waste Connections, but noted that the company complies with the limitations on the reuse of liquid leachate under their permit. “I would assume that if the prior owner at any period of time under their permit, were not allowed to do it, then they didn’t do it,” he said. “I don’t have evidence demonstrating they did do it, but I also can’t confirm that they never did it.”

Even with the change in ownership, Garibay said he is committed to pressing forward to expose what he and others saw and experienced, and that he continues to learn more and more as he talks with others who’ve worked at the waste sites. He hopes an investigation could lead to damages for employees who were affected and their families.

“We all know it’s the truth,” he said, “and now the truth has to come to light.”

“In Your Corner” is a column that puts watchdog reporting to work for the community. If you have a concern, a tip, or a hunch, you can reach “In Your Corner” Columnist Marisa Endicott at 707-521-5470 or On X (formerly Twitter) @InYourCornerTPD and Facebook @InYourCornerTPD.

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