The USA Petroleum/Petrochem site on Crooked Palm Avenue in Ventura remained dormant for nearly 30 years after less than a decade in operation. Owner John Moller built the refinery in the late 1970s and then shut it down in 1984. A familiar eyesore for drivers on Highway 33 and bike riders on the trail from Ventura to Ojai, any movement at the property was rare, with the exception of graffiti artists who had painted the out-of-commission storage facilities and various other structures on the grounds.
In August, however, things had to start moving at a rapid race. Moller had received notice from the Environmental Protection Agency that gave explicit details on how the site must be cleaned up or he would face as much as $37,500 per day in fines. The EPA began its involvement in August of 2012, after the Ventura County Environmental Health Voluntary Cleanup Program sent the EPA a letter, requesting federal oversight of cleanup operations at the site, stated Nahal Mogharabi, public affairs specialist for the EPA Los Angeles office, in an e-mail.
Rick Bandelin, a manager at the County of Ventura Environmental Health Division, said that though the refinery had registered for the voluntary cleanup program in 2005, by 2009, the county had seen little action at the site.
“In 2005, they joined the program because there was an interested buyer and they had to do their due diligence,” Bandelin said. “There had been some action on it for when spills would occur, and when there was theft of copper or other metals. Those were cleaned up using the voluntary cleanup program.”
By 2012, however, when a county inspector checked the site for hazardous waste and hazardous materials and reported that mostly surface spills were not being cleaned up, responses from the owner were less than prompt.
“Their responses were slow and inadequate,” Bandelin said, relaying that the buyer had probably dropped out by that time.
In August, according to Bandelin, when an EPA official had come to the county, interested in a nearby Superfund site in Fillmore, the county requested the EPA’s involvement with the USA Petrochem cleanup. Despite signs posted at Petrochem, the EPA has not registered it as a Superfund site.
At the same time, Bandelin said, either USA Petrochem withdrew from the voluntary cleanup program or the county took it off the list because the EPA became involved. Moller then began the EPA’s cleanup project in August and, on Jan. 21, Moller signed the administrative order on consent that outlined the EPA’s cleanup requirement.
Remediation containers at the site were used to remove contaminated soil.
The order stated that the EPA’s initial site assessment found that there were numerous leaking pipelines, leaking tanks and leaking production vessels throughout the property. The EPA determined there had been discharge on adjoining shorelines to navigable waters of the United States in violation of the Clean Water Act. The order further stated that there was a “substantial threat of a ‘discharge’ ” and that, based on the amount of oil and petroleum products then stored there and the amount of leaking oil that continued to contaminate the soil, the quantity of oil that might be discharged constituted a “harmful quantity” under the Clean Water Act. The EPA determined that conditions at the site could present an imminent and substantial threat to public health or welfare.
Kristopher Moller, the property owner’s son, took on the project in early January and had hard deadlines to meet shortly thereafter — some to be completed by Jan. 31 and the rest by Feb. 28.
In the order, the EPA required that, by Jan. 31:
All outfalls, drainages and conveyances to the Ventura River be located and blinded or closed off.
All spills must be cleaned up and any future spills must be prevented.
All overgrown and contaminated vegetation onsite must be removed.
All oil, oily sludge, oil-contaminated debris, fuel oil, oily water and refining chemicals must be removed from storage tanks. (According to the order, the two above-ground storage tanks contained a total of 2,500 barrels of crude oil; six other storage tanks contained a total of 4,800 barrels of fuel oil, oily substances and refinery chemicals.)
Kristopher Moller said that all of the Jan. 31 deadlines were met.
By Feb. 15, conveyances running from offsite to the tank farm, from tanks to the refinery and from the refinery to the tank farm must be removed and ready for proper off-site disposal. By Feb. 28, the final disposal of all waste or recycled material to offsite must be completed. Also, all remaining equipment subject to the order must be removed, except for cleaned refinery process units that were intended to be sold.
The chemical facilities, including the spherical storage containers at the south end, were constructed by Shell in the 1950s and were not included in the order.
USA Petrochem released an official statement last week regarding the cleanup:
“Petrochem Development I, LLC has worked with the County and City of Ventura to redevelop the former refinery site for several years. As part of this goal, Petrochem Development is dismantling the former refinery, and is completing an environmental assessment of the facility under the review of the EPA. Petrochem Development is working cooperatively with the EPA, and continues its discussions with both the City and County to find a suitable reuse for the site that benefits our community.”
Maggie Waldon, the on-scene coordinator of the Emergency Response Section, Region XI, said that the EPA will tour the facility at the time of the Feb. 28 deadline, or shortly thereafter. She said that, due to fines of up to $37,500 per day if the deadlines are not met, the EPA has some assurance that the jobs will be completed as required in the order.
Although the cleanup nears completion, the site is currently the subject of a criminal investigation by the EPA. In late November, authorities, armed with a warrant, searched the site for evidence of illegally stored toxic waste, left over in leaking tanks and pipes from the days of operation.
Neither Waldon nor Kristopher Moller had any information regarding the investigation, which is currently ongoing.
“This is still an ongoing criminal case, and as such we are unable to share additional information at this time,” stated EPA’s Mogharabi in an e-mail.
Along with the cleanup and the ongoing investigation, the owner was also informed in mid-January about the need to be in compliance with Los Angeles Water Quality Control Board’s Ventura River Estuary Trash Total Maximum Daily Load. Noncompliance could result in fines of as much as $25,000 per day. The main concern — the homeless people who had built encampments along the banks of the Ventura River on the property but outside of the gated refinery site. The administrative order on consent also required that there be onsite security to prevent the homeless from living within the gated site. The site currently has 24-hour security.
A longstanding homeless encampment on the southside
of the USA Petrochem property outside of the gated facility
had a one room house with an attic, fenced in with barbed wire atop the gate.
In a tour of the property outside the gated facility in late January, Kristopher Moller, city officials and cleanup representatives found elaborate encampments, which included one well-manicured site with a one-room structure and an attic and fenced in with barbed wire atop the gate, and another encampment with piles of cut firewood and a succulent garden. Intricate mazes led to numerous campsites along the property. The homeless were informed that they had to vacate the property by Feb. 7. Most complied with the notice though a few were given extensions in order to remove the items they had accumulated. Costs of the refinery and homeless encampment cleanup combined have been estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“We look forward to working with the county and the city of Ventura and all of the various Ventura River interest groups in collaborating to determine the best and highest use for this land,” Kristopher Moller said.
*To view court documents in PDF format click here
Stay tuned: In an upcoming feature, a discussion about the USA Petrochem site will go into detail about the hurdles that have held the cleanup project back and the realm of possibilities for the future of the site. The EPA administrative order on consent can be found at www.vcreporter.com.