State Joins Ventura County Prosecution that Began over Flaming Wastewater

Tuesday, December 01, 2015
Santa Clara Waste Water (photo: CBS News)

California’s Department of Justice has formally joined the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office in the prosecution of a whole slew of folks for their handling of hazardous waste leading up to explosions, fires and a mile-long toxic plume on November 18, 2014, that caused injuries at Santa Clara Waste Water (SCWW).

Santa Clara describes itself as “an environmentally safe and legal means of treating, disposing and recycling of contaminated but non-hazardous waste, thus, preventing the disposal of these untreated wastes, into municipal sewer systems, the water supply, or the ocean.” Waste comes from industrial sites, including chemical toilets and some oil and natural gas operations.

An investigation turned up falsified wastewater lab analyses and other transgressions to disguise dangerous environmental situations. The Ventura County Grand Jury indicted nine people, including CEO William Mitzel, and two corporate entities in August on 71 counts for various criminal offenses. The attorney general’s officer summarized the accusations last week thusly:

“Conspiracy to dispose of hazardous waste, failure to warn of a serious concealed danger, handling a hazardous waste with a reckless disregard for human life, withholding information regarding a substantial danger to public safety, filing a false or forged instrument, and dissuading a witness.”

Until the blast, the facility sent treated wastewater through a 12-mile pipeline to the city of Oxnard's sewage plant. Oxnard put a stop to that.

A nine-month investigation by the district attorney, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Ventura County Environmental Health Department and the Ventura County Fire Department was triggered by a bizarre truck explosion.

A vacuum truck exploded pre-dawn after loading 1,200 gallons of chemicals from at least eight separate containers at the company’s facility in Santa Paula. The truck was sitting idly, its toxic chemicals interacting with each other in unpredictable ways, when fumes were noticed wafting over the top. Within seconds, it exploded.

Firefighters responded to find a white mass coming from the truck and flowing in different directions. It washed across their boots, sparking against the material, as they began a hasty retreat. After the wastewater reached structures, there was a series of explosions and fires.

Several people were injured, businesses and homes were evacuated, and dozens of people were treated for potential exposure to the toxic brew. Three firefighters, enveloped in fumes, have not returned to work. There were mandatory evacuations for everyone within one mile and a warning to stay indoors for people within three miles.

The attorney general said the issue was of statewide significance because Santa Clara’s corporate parent, Green Compass Environmental Solutions LLC, has facilities in Orange County and Kern County, and conducts waste disposal services in the Bay Area.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

State Joins Prosecution Against Santa Clara Waste Water Co. over Explosion (by Kathleen Wilson, Ventura County Star)

The Hazardous Truth (by Kit Stolz, VC Reporter)

State Joins Prosecution in Santa Clara Waste Water Facility Explosion Case (by Kelsey Gerckens, News-Press and Gazette of California)

Joint Prosecution Announced in Santa Clara Waste Water Facility Explosion Case (California Department of Justice)

DA Reports Finding Falsified Records in Santa Clara Waste Water Case (by Kathleen Wilson and Marjorie Hernandez, Ventura County Star)

The State of California v. Green Compass Environmental Solutions et al (Ventura County Superior Court) (pdf)

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