by Kit Stoltz
*This piece won the award in 2015 for Best Investigative Reporting from the California News Publishers Association.
On Nov. 18, 2014, an explosion, fire and mile-long plume of toxic gas badly injured three firefighters and 12 employees at the Santa Clara Waste Water site near Santa Paula. Over 50 people, including a motorcyclist passing on Highway 126, were sent to the hospital for treatment after breathing in a cloud of black toxicity that included chlorine dioxide, a poisonous gas.
The three Santa Paula firefighters who were enveloped in the cloud have not recovered a year later and remain on medical leave. The fire truck they drove to the site at 3:45 in the morning was badly damaged in the explosion and subsequently had to be written off, after repeated attempts to decontaminate it, and despite its $500,000 cost.
In the immediate aftermath of the explosion, which led to a daylong evacuation and the declaration of a local emergency by Sheriff Geoff Dean, the closure of Hwy 126, and a “shelter in place” order at the county jail on Todd Road; the Ventura County District Attorney seized documents, computers and cell phones from the top executives at the company.
A federal team from the Environmental Protection Agency flew in and set to work assessing contaminants, testing crops in the Santa Paula area — $1.7 million worth was thrown out — and preparing a cleanup plan for the devastated waste-water treatment plant. It was led by EPA Special Agent Kristine Wilson, who assisted in a joint interrogation of Vice President Chuck Mundy that resulted in a confession that he falsified documents to cover up the handling of hazardous materials. (Mundy subsequently found legal representation and is no longer speaking to authorities.) The EPA went on to oversee a cleanup of the toxic materials spilled at the site, which meant extensive testing and the trucking of hundreds of loads of waste to the Chiquita Canyon landfill near Santa Clarita.
Meanwhile the District Attorney’s office put Jeff Barry, a former narcotics officer who was also experienced in forensic investigations of computer files, to work on what became a full-scale investigation of the company.
From the start, according to records of the District Attorney’s investigation filed on July 13 with the Superior Court, company executives and managers misled law enforcement and told workers not to talk to authorities, even first responders.
Investigator Barry stated that he went undercover, posing as a relative of one of the workers, and recorded a phone call from SCWW Human Resources Director Marlene Faltemier. During the call Faltemier allegedly told him that the company had a “no speak” policy for all employees, which prohibited frank discussion of plant operations with authorities, regulators or police.
Despite that apparent attempt to cover up, after a nine-month investigation, Senior Deputy District Attorney Christopher Harman came to the Grand Jury in August with a case against the company, its parent firm Green Compass and SCWW’s management, including the CEO at the time of the explosion, Doug Edwards, and President Bill Mitzel.
After hearing a three-week presentation, including the testimony of 68 witnesses, the Grand Jury handed down a 71-count indictment of nine company officials, mostly for felony crimes involving hazardous waste, such as “causing great bodily injury by negligently emitting an air contaminant.”
Conviction on just one of the felony hazardous-waste charges could result in a stay in state prison for as long as nine years.
Company officials are not talking to the press. Calls were referred to attorney Barry Groveman, a former prosecutor of environmental crimes in Los Angeles, now a senior partner in a Calabasas law office, who will be defending company President Bill Mitzel and the corporation.
“This was an unfortunate industrial accident that has been wrongly criminalized by the District Attorney,” Groveman said. “We will provide a muscular defense.”
Senior Deputy District Attorney Karen Wold, who will prosecute the case, looks forward to a trial date to be set soon.
“These are unusual charges,” she said. “If you look around, there are not that many explosions that lead to injuries. These are environmental crimes for which there aren’t that many comparisons.”
Although none of the principals, prosecutors or defenders is talking to the press about what happened last November in advance of the trial, the court unsealed the investigation’s report that led to the issuing of search warrants. The report includes over 300 pages of detailed recounting from Barry and other investigators. The guilt or innocence of the defendants will be decided in a courtroom beginning next month, but this is what the District Attorney has learned:
TOP: Ventura County Fire Department truck rendered unusable by Santa Clara Waste Water fire. (According to Peggy Kelly of the Santa Paula Times, this truck cost $600k.) In front of the truck are visible the remains of many “totes” containing chemicals that burned in the fire. ABOVE: Truck damaged in the explosion at the plant.
WHAT HAPPENED THE NIGHT OF THE EXPLOSION
Before the explosion, Santa Clara Waste Water had a good year financially in 2014. Santa Clara Waste Water processed 83 million gallons of waste last year, about 80 percent of which came from oil-field production, according to company officials, and operated 24 hours a day.
The company grossed about $18 million on the outskirts of Santa Paula before the explosion, according to an internal spreadsheet from parent company Green Compass, quoted by Barry, and expected to gross as much as $25 million this year, the evidence review said, although the plant is now closed.
On site at the plant a 5,000-gallon vacuum truck was used to transport liquids from dewatering machines and holding tanks to the pipeline that sent waste 14 miles to be treated at Oxnard’s city wastewater facility and then piped to the ocean. This arrangement had been in place since the company was first founded at the site in l959 by a consortium of oil companies led by Shell.
“Remember, SCWW (Santa Clara Waste Water) is a nonhazardous facility,” the company promised oil-field waste disposers on its website. “With SCWW, there will be no hazardous superfund lawsuit naming your company in five years, or even 50 years.”
Despite these assurances and despite the drily factual writing typical of an affidavit supporting a request for a search warrant, the scene at Santa Clara Waste Water as described by the investigators on the night of November 18, 2014, reads like something out of an action movie, complete with huge explosions, blast waves and terrified men running for their lives.
At 3:33 that morning, driver Nick Arbuckle, who worked the night shift at Santa Clara Waste Water, sat in his truck taking a meal break.
An overhead picture of the Santa Clara Waste Water facility shows it crowded with large industrial tanks and, last November, a number of 250-gallon plastic containers known as “totes.” Because the company was due to be inspected on the following day, according to statements by Chuck Mundy to Santa Paula’s Assistant Fire Chief Dustin Lazenby, an order was given that night by supervisor Kenny Griffin to vacuum out the totes.
Griffin — who at the time was 19 years old, had no safety training and happened to be Mundy’s girlfriend’s son — evidently either didn’t know or didn’t care that the chemicals in the totes could react with other chemicals in the truck, organic matter such as sewage or even dirt.
Griffin reportedly told the investigator in an interview that the truck was “just sitting there after pulling some totes.” According to Griffin’s statement, the truck driver had vacuumed up the materials of at least eight containers holding chemicals. That meant that at least 250 gallons of the chemical sodium chlorite, possibly twice that much, had gone into a truck with at least eight different chemicals and possibly a load of sewage.
Sodium chlorite is known to be “violently explosive” in combination with other chemicals and organic materials such as sewage, according to statements in the legal documents.
The truck was parked and turned off.
On top of the truck, Griffin said, he noticed that the pressure valve for the truck had started to steam. Griffin went to investigate, he said, and then “The back of it blew off.”
Also on scene was another truck driver, Mike Topete, who described the scene more vividly to investigators, in the report to the District Attorney’s office dated July 21. Topete was badly hurt in the explosion and is now a named victim.
According to the affidavits with the request for search warrants, “Topete said it was windy and he saw what he thought was dust coming off the top of the tanker truck. He looked over and said he realized that the dust was actually vapors or steam coming from the top of the tanker truck.
“Topete then heard a ‘violent noise’ described as ‘a roar or hissing’ coming from the tanker truck. He believed it was an escape of air pressure. At that time he began walking away from the tanker truck. While he was walking away, he saw a blue flame emitting from the same area where he heard the hissing. At that point, he began to run away from the truck because he was scared. Topete planned to dive down on the ground because he thought something bad was going to happen. Topete got about 10 feet of distance away when he heard a blast behind him. The pressure wave of the blast pushed him to the ground. He felt debris from the tanker truck hit his body. He felt ‘a good whack’ on his left leg [that opened a 4-inch cut]. Topete fell hard to the ground.
“As he fell to the ground, Topete saw a large cloud of black smoke come toward him from the explosion. He wanted to get up and run. At that point, however, he inhaled a large plume of smoke that came toward him from the explosion. This caused Topete to fall down again. Topete fell very hard and he could feel his body covered in liquid. The liquid felt like it was burning his clothes.
“At the time of the explosion, he was wearing blue coveralls, rubber boots, leather gloves, protective eyeglasses and a hard hat. His pants were tucked into his boots. Several coworkers ran to his aid and helped him remove his clothes because they were covered in burning material. The coworkers performed first aid on Topete’s leg. In addition to his leg, Topete felt pain all over his body.”
Why did company officials order Arbuckle to vacuum up the materials from at least eight separate containers into a truck in the middle of the night? Mundy told Dustin Lazenby, the assistant fire chief of Santa Paula, that the plant was due to be inspected the next day, Nov. 19. To another official, Mundy mentioned a “federal” inspection, although the EPA said it had no plans to look at the facility at that time.
Sodium chlorite is toxic if ingested and highly irritating to skin and lungs, comparable to sulfuric or hydrochloric acid. In liquid form it is able to corrode steel, according to the EPA, and listed as a hazardous material by the agency. OxyChem, which manufacturers the substance as a disinfectant, warns that any contamination of the liquid with dirt or organic matter “may start a chemical reaction with generation of heat and emission of chlorine dioxide (a poisonous, explosive gas). A fire or explosion may result.”
In documents, interviews and statements dating back to the 1990s, Mundy and other company officials repeatedly told press, regulators and neighbors that they only handled nonhazardous waste. In fact the plant had at least 250 — if not 500 — gallons of sodium chlorite available for use, according to investigators, and did not disclose as required its hazardous materials to regulators, according to EPA tests and Ventura County Environmental Health inspection reports.
WHAT THE FIRE DEPARTMENT DISCOVERED
The first responders at the scene after the explosion came from the Santa Paula Fire Department. According to a timeline maintained by the county’s Office of Emergency Services, they arrived at 3:45 in the morning.
Capt. Milo Bustillos drove with a crew of two into the darkness of Santa Clara Waste Water. The explosion had blown open the vacuum truck and blasted out the windows of the office and injured nine employees.
A forklift operator named Devin Kurtz, who had helped Nick Arbuckle vacuum out the totes, was working in the office when he heard the pressure whistle on the truck sound. It became so loud, he told investigators, that he stopped hearing it, saw a large flash and felt percussion. The blast, which blew out the power, knocked him down inside the office.
When he went outside to help give first aid to Mike Topete, he smelled chlorine. This angered him, he said. He had been working at the plant for seven months, suspected it was handling hazardous wastes and had taken photos of suspicious substances with his phone.
Bustillos with his crew drove into the darkness and the thousand gallons — or more — of substances expelled by the blast in the yard. When they got out of the truck, they found themselves standing in a pool about a foot deep.
“You have nothing to worry about, it is just sewer water,” the captain was told by a company official.
Despite these assurances, Bustillos, who was standing in a pool of what County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen later described as “toxic goo,” became suspicious.
“We are in it now?” he asked.
“There is nothing toxic here,” he was told by plant officials. “There are no chemicals; we are fine.”
Bustillos was not reassured. Forklift operator Devin Kurtz, against orders, had told one of his men that there were toxic materials on site.
“Don’t fucking lie to me,” Bustillos told company officials. “It’s not sewer water.”
Bustillos and his crew went on to tape off the area, but as the whitish material began to dry in and as the night turned to day, it became flammable. Bustillos’ boots caught fire as he walked around the yard at about 6:00 a.m., according to the incident timeline.
“Bustillos called the incident commander and reported what happened,” the affidavits reveal. “He tried to move the Santa Paula Fire Department truck. When the truck moved a short distance, a massive fireball erupted and engulfed the fire engine. It burned for approximately 10 seconds.”
Subsequently, Bustillos felt sick and developed breathing problems. He has been put on indefinite medical leave. Doctors don’t know how to treat him because they don’t know exactly what chemicals he was exposed to. He coughs often, but it provides no relief, and he is worried about his future health.
“If they just would have been truthful when we got on the scene none of this would have happened,” he said.
Fire and toxic cloud the morning of November 18th, the day of the disaster.
A CONSPIRACY IN TEXT MESSAGES
On Nov. 5, a week and a half before the explosion, Ventura County’s Environmental Health division inspected the Santa Clara Waste Water plant to make sure the company was in compliance with its permit allowing certain chemicals on site. The routine inspection found nothing amiss, but according to the District Attorney’s investigation, that was because plant managers “unlawfully conspired” to hide chemicals not allowed in the plant’s Hazardous Materials Business Plan at another location in nearby Santa Paula.
Charged with a felony conspiracy to commit a crime are the business’s entire management team, including CEO Doug Edwards, President Bill Mitzel, Vice President Chuck Mundy and supervisors Kenny Griffin and David Wirsing. In text messages described as “overt acts” of criminality in the indictment filed on Aug. 7, Mundy and other managers allegedly texted information to each other about hiding the chemicals from the inspectors.
In the week before the inspectors arrived, supervisors Wirsing and Griffin moved totes containing prohibited chemicals at night from the Santa Clara plant to a yard on Palm Avenue near downtown Santa Paula. After the inspection was over and the coast clear, Wirsing allegedly sent a triumphant text to executive Marlene Faltemier.
“Nice play by Chuck [Mundy],” it said. “New yard works well for overstock of chemicals on important days. Lol!”
AFTER THE CLEAN UP: LESSONS LEARNED
City Councilwoman Ginger Gherardi said that Santa Paula still has not fully recovered from the explosion, fire and toxic cloud.
“This was a very serious problem,” she said. “We have three firefighters hurt and still on disability. We have a fire truck that was basically destroyed. We had a local emergency and evacuation. We are running up costs that we hope to recoup at some point, but we have not yet.”
Gherardi said she wants to see “better regulation and aggressive verification that these sort of facilities are meeting all their requirements.”
Supervisor Kathy Long, District 3, where the plant is located, said that the explosion had led the Board of Supervisors to resolve to take a closer look at oilfield waste disposal in the county. She mentioned the other commercial handler of oilfield wastes in the county, Anterra, an injection-well operator for oil wastes located in Oxnard, which is also under criminal investigation by the District Attorney, and has also been accused of flouting regulations.
“This was really a horrifying incident,” she said. “This got not just our attention and the District Attorney’s but also the attention of state regulators and the industry. We have authority to regulate these waste facilities above ground, but below ground the authority belongs to the state. I believe that the Board [of Supervisors] will look to see how we can tighten our zoning code amendments to add language to better regulate waste handling and containment.”
For Jason Weiner, an attorney with the Ventura Coastkeeper and Wishtoyo Foundation, which have successfully sued and settled with several large companies and wastewater treatment plants for violations of the federal Clean Water Act in Ventura County, the incident points to a systemic problem.
“Within the oil and gas industry we often see ‘hide the ball’ tactics in which operators engage in oil production and fracking and think they can do whatever they like with our water and our air and the land they’re extracting from,” he said. “Sadly, that seems to have carried over to this disposal operation.”
Weiner said that in the cases in which his group has sued polluters overseen by the county’s Environmental Health division, they had often seen reports from inspectors who found nothing while walking through facilities later judged to be in violation of the Clean Water Act.
“It seems to be a pattern and practice in which inspectors are not properly trained or are just failing to regulate the businesses or communities they’re charged with overseeing,” he said. “There seems to be a problem, at least with discharges to the environment, that we’ve seen over six years and 10 lawsuits. I think it’s a big concern because this gives facilities the impression they’re complying with local, state and federal laws.”
Although the company has been closed for a year, after a search on Nov. 5 involving representatives from the EPA, the State Department of Toxic Substances Control, Environmental Health, and the Fire Department, the District Attorney alleged that 16 totes containing hazardous waste were found hidden in a storage locker at the plant and not properly disclosed. Groveman, speaking for the county, said that the allegations were “without merit and are completely inaccurate.”
The arraignment of the company’s management is set for Dec. 1.
See Kit Stolz’s site achangeinthewind.com for more pictures, documentation and trial coverage.