Oxnard pulls the plug, local emergency declared in wake of SCWW blasts, fires

December 03, 2014
Santa Paula News

Ventura County Sheriff Geoff Dean called for a declaration of local emergency stemming from the November 18 chemical explosions and fires that occurred at Santa Clara Waste Water in an unincorporated area of Santa Paula on the same day the plug was pulled by the City of Oxnard on the waste handler now under investigation for a series of explosions and fires. 

On the same, November 26 Wednesday that Dean’s report was released, the City of Oxnard pulled the permit - and the plug - on SCWW, which had been sending discharges to that city’s wastewater plant through a pipeline that runs from the Mission Rock facility to Oxnard.

The explosions on Mission Rock Road left dozens injured and is still the scene of sample gathering as officials from county, state and federal agencies try to discover just what ignited - and why.

Los Angeles Hazardous Material Teams have been dispatched to the scene, as has the Coast Guard, which has delicate testing robots for use in wet environments.

Friday morning there was yet another incident at the plant when sampling personnel from Patriot Environmental Services, a customer of SCWW that was retained in the wake of the explosions and fires, reportedly bumped into a wheel barrel, which ignited a flash fire. 

The puff of smoke was visible from Highway 126 and a witness from an adjoining property said he heard the explosion: “It was pretty powerful... it sent the clean-up crew running for cover.”

There were no injuries and the flash fire burned itself out. But it demonstrated the ongoing volatility of the property where an estimated 1,000-plus gallons of chemicals spilled.

In his written report to the Board of Supervisors, to be presented December 2, Dean noted that after the initial November 18 explosion of a vacuum truck - which occurred at 3:45 a.m. - the “incident evolved into a disaster,” by about 8:30 a.m. “when additional materials began to burn and explode, which resulted in a three-mile plume of toxic smoke.”

The second explosion caused the closure of Highway 126 from Wells Road to Peck Road for hours and caused an evacuation of those within one mile of the facility; those within three miles of the evacuation perimeter were asked to shelter in place including Todd Road Jail just west of the blast where vents were closed and air-conditioning shut off.

The incident threatened to overwhelm Ventura County Medical Center where the Emergency Room had to be closed due to the fumes carried by those near the blast that affected even medical workers. Decontamination tents already placed for possible Ebola patients were utilized as more and more people sought treatment for breathing problems, itchy eyes, coughing and sore throats. Two workers present at the scene of first explosion were hospitalized. 

The resolution notes that “conditions of disaster and extreme peril to the safety of persons and property within the County of Ventura have arisen as a result of a hazardous materials release and exposure harming dozens of people,” the number has since risen to 52, including three Santa Paula Firefighters and seven other first responders, “and prompting an evacuation of an area near Santa Paula.”

The incident, notes Dean’s report, created “extreme peril to people and property,” which led to the declaration of a local emergency. 

Also on November 26 Oxnard officials announced SCWW has been locked out of Oxnard’s sewer system and the firm can no longer discharge materials into the city’s wastewater collection system after wastewater tested in October and November showed it exceeded limits for gross beta particles - more commonly known as radioactive waste - on three dates. The company had already been ordered to correct the issue once before and reportedly had complied.

“Given the recent explosion and uncontrolled release of unknown hazardous materials... and the recurring permit violations,” reads the letter from City Manager Greg Nyhoff, “the city must take this action... to protect the integrity” of the system and the community’s welfare.

Daniel Rydberg, Interim Utilities Director wrote the mayor and council that as a result of the find, “we have suspended their permit and locked the valve on their (SCWW) discharge line in the closed position. We are currently reviewing testing and operational procedures to determine appropriate changes if and when Santa Clara Wastewater is allowed to resume discharging into the Oxnard system.” 

According to Jim Wada, Ventura County Environmental Health Hazardous Waste section supervisor, as of Wednesday, November 26, officials were “still gathering samples on information,” but the “cleanup phase” has not yet begun pending results of testing of the facility and its grounds.

The Ventura County District Attorney’s Office launched an investigation last week and served warrants Friday, November 21, related to same.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health as well as Ventura County personnel and the Agricultural Commissioner’s office are working the incident along with Ventura County Fire and the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. 

The Board of Supervisors had a regularly scheduled meeting the day of the explosion and was on holiday break until the December 2 meeting.

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