One year later Santa Clara Wastewater
explosions, fires still a mystery

November 18, 2015
Santa Paula News

It’s been a year since Santa Clara Waste Water-Green Compass had an incident that started about 3:45 a.m. with a vacuum truck making a hissing noise that caught the attention of those nearby at the Mission Rock Road facility. Some instinctively took cover before a blue flame was observed followed closely by an explosion that blew the back of the tank off…several workers were hit with debris as the explosion spewed about 1,000 gallons of an unknown liquid hundreds of feet.

That November 18, 2014 incident was just the beginning of a mysterious string of events that left more than 50 people treated for exposure to an unknown toxic substance, caused a wide evacuation and the creation of a camp of county, state and federal agencies set up for months in parking lot where they oversaw the incident, a report prepared for SCWW by a former high profile District Attorney that offered a theory — but no factual data — of what happened, the pulling of a wastewater processing permit by the City of Oxnard when they found high radioactivity in what is believed to be fracking waters, a carefully orchestrated Open House at the still shuttered facility, an investigation ordered by the current District Attorney, 300-pages of warrants and affidavits, a three-week Grand Jury hearing and the arrests and nine criminal indictments of company officials. People are still suffering from the aftermath including three Santa Paula Firefighters, the first responders to the scene who were assured again and again that what had spilled was not hazardous waste.

After the foot ware of those on scene was reported to be popping and bursting into flame an evacuation was ordered but while pulling out the tires on the SPFD engine started to smoke and then a massive fireball erupted, filling the cab of firefighters with toxic smoke. 

But it was not over: at approximately 8 a.m. a second explosion took place when a “toxic plume” as described by county officials blew up igniting chemicals in totes on the ground.

Firefighters and other responders — including the federal Enviornmental Protection Agency — moved the Command Post at the intersection of Briggs Road and Highway 126 to the Kmart parking lot a few miles away. Nearby schools, offices and businesses were also evacuated but inmates at Todd Road Jail were allowed to shelter in place as long as the jail was sealed from outside air. 

Other twists and turns included a second warrant served at a city lot leased by SWCC, which allegedly had been using it to illegally store dangerous chemicals, and perhaps radioactive materials, a SCWW truck — reported stolen several days after the fact — found in a field after it had been leaking what was believed to be toxic chemicals in the Oxnard area, a spill during testing in pipeline that connects the facility to the Oxnard wastewater treatment suspected to be resulting from an unsecured manhole and the second service of warrants at the facility less than two weeks ago that a witness said appeared to include a hazardous materials investigation and/or cleanup.

Mix in that SCWW’s insurance initially balked at paying for the cleanup — it is unknown if a settlement was reached — and the company that conducted the cleanup, one of SCWW biggest customers, Patriot Environmental Services, obtained a mechanics lien in January 2015 for about $6.6 million for as noted on the document for “Disposal of waste materials for post-fire cleanup at Mission Rock location and various remote locations as directed by SCWW.” 

There was no mention of hazardous materials on the lien.

Ironically, in the weeks leading up to the explosion Patriot had been working with SCWW executives to finalize a buyout of the facility for $90-million-plus. Patriot had created a new subsidiary in August 2014 — Patriot Wastewater — with a processing facility in Orange County and announced its intention “to acquire and/or build additional facilities in Ventura, Kern, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties.”

The proposed deal led to allegations of potential securities fraud, although such activity was not addressed in the 71-count indictment against SCWW executives and managers, the latter including the 19-year-old son of one of the defendants who was the night shift supervisor, that alleged a pattern of criminal behavior on the part of personnel as well as the companies.

District Attorney Investigator Jeff Barry concluded in the search warrant affidavits that the plant was unsafely managed, employees were poorly trained and lacked even basic safety equipment and records were routinely falsified before the November 18 explosions and fires occurred.

Just about two weeks before the blast Ventura County Environmental Health inspected the plant. It is not known if they were ever notified by the county Planning Department that nearby neighbors had been documenting incidents at the plant for more than a year complaining of heavy night traffic and fumes that ranged from sewage to chemicals.

According to the DA’s investigation, “Evidence and admissions revealed,” a company official “designed a scheme to evade inspections by Ventura County Environmental Health.”

That alleged scheme included removing labels from totes, affixing false labels to others and moving dangerous chemicals not reported to regulators as well as radioactive waste to the property SCWW-Green Compass had leased from the city in July 2014. The lease agreement specifically banned the storage of such materials on the property.

The 29-page indictment against the nine employees and two business entities lists 71 counts of various criminal offenses, including conspiracy to commit a crime, disposal of hazardous waste, recklessly handling hazardous waste, known failure to warn of serious concealed danger and causing impairment to an employee’s body and causing great bodily injury by emitting an air contaminant. 

Other charges lodged against SCWW-Green Compass personnel include suspicion of dissuading a witness from reporting a crime, withholding information regarding a substantial danger to public safety and filing a false or forged instrument specifically regarding hazardous waste. 

The nine are due back in court December 1 to enter pleas to the charges while they remain out on bail. 

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