Pictured: Chemical storage totes burn on Nov. 18, 2014 at Santa Clara Waste Water in Santa Paula. 

“The only accident is that they got caught.” – Captain Milo Bustillos.

by Kimberly Rivers

On Friday, Aug. 23, in Courtroom 36 at Ventura County Superior Court, Judge Patricia Murphy accepted a plea agreement and issued a criminal judgment ordering Santa Clara Waste Water (SCWW) and Green Compass to pay just under $2.8 million to 14 victims of the 2014 toxic chemical explosion caused by the companies’ lying and illegal activity.

“They say this was an industrial accident,” said Capt. Milo Bustillos, formerly with the Santa Paula Fire Department, while speaking to the court during the hearing, his emotions evident.“I was the first engine company on the scene and I don’t believe it was an industrial accident. If they wouldn’t have lied to me, they wouldn’t have lied to us . . . and they led us into the chemicals that they were hiding. The only accident is that they got caught.”

He is now permanently disabled after his lungs were exposed to toxic vapors from the explosion. Bustillos also has problems with his vision, respiratory and cardiovascular systems and deals with fatigue and “emotional issues.”

Now on a limited income raising two children, the weight of the impact can be seen in his face.

“The only thing we have to look forward to is more doctor’s appointments . . . and how much life we have left . . . They chose to do this to us. And as they get to move forward to their careers, we lost ours,” said Bustillos during his statement in court.

“The pattern of behavior that is demonstrated by the charges that they are convicted of demonstrate … an extreme, reckless disregard for the safety and the wellbeing” of employees and “the first responders,” said Murphy. “The corporation and the individuals who ran the corporation were solely motivated by greed and expediency.”

In the predawn hours of Nov. 18, 2014, an explosion tore through a vacuum truck and sprayed an unknown toxic chemical on the ground and surrounding surfaces. Employees at the scene were injured. Fire fighters and paramedics responded to a call that included no information about an explosion or chemicals.

“We saw nothing at all, it was blacked out,” said Bustillos about arriving at the scene. “We didn’t get a call about an explosion. We were told it was a traumatic injury.”

Plastic storage totes containing chemicals burned and melted away in the hours after the initial explosion at Santa Clara Waste Water in Santa Paula.

Bustillos arrived on scene with other fire fighters and paramedics in the dark. Over the next several hours, fire erupted from unexpected sources. Tires on a fire engine, which was parked in a white substance, ignited when the engine started to move. Protective boots of fire fighters erupted into flames when they walked across a seemingly harmless surface. Plastic containers of chemicals melted and burned to the ground. A toxic vapor cloud rose into the air over Ventura County. All the while the first responders were breathing.

“All the lies got us to where we are today,” and Bustillos is not sure what will happen.

Judgment payments to victims range between $1,600 to over $600,000. Bustillo is slated to receive over $273,630 as compensation for his injuries. It will help, he says, but he will never be able return to work as a fire fighter due to ongoing breathing difficulties. “I’m in the dark about next steps . . . I don’t know what will happen with my health.”

He exchanged a hug with Jeff Barry just outside the courtroom. Barry was the first investigator on the scene after the explosion. He wrote and issued the search warrants, gathered evidence and interviewed all parties, including the victims. Barry said that since the explosion the victims are being treated as though they inhaled chlorine dioxide. Even though the actual substance is still unconfirmed, the symptoms victims are experiencing are most similar to exposure from that chemical. “It burns your lungs,” he said.

Doctors have found spots on several victims’ kidneys and lungs, “and their doctors can’t tell them what it is . . . this was no accident. This was the result of a combination of greed and complete lack of training by the corporate defendants and their employees,” said Dominic Kardum, prosecutor with the Ventura County District Attorney during his statement to the Judge.

The timeline for payment of the restitution to the victims is tied to a pending application submitted to the Ventura County Planning Department by RI-NU Services LLC., a company wanting to reopen the waste water treatment and disposal facility.

Aerial photo shows a chemical mixture left behind after initial explosion – contents spontaneously erupted into flames when disturbed making clean-up challenging.

Kardum said the plea agreement includes a provision that the permit approval “triggers the payment timeline,” but the DA has no position on the new permit. He said the judgment still stands whether or not the permit is approved. Kardum said right now the companies are “empty shells” and are unable to pay the restitution until the permit is granted and SCWW is able to sell to RI-NU LLC.

Co-defendants in the case, SCWW executives Doug Edwards, Charles Mundy, Bill Mitzel and others, have been convicted of multiple counts, including felony charges, related to handling, storing, moving and disposing of hazardous chemicals they were not licensed to have, and lying about it. They have also been convicted of dissuading employees from making statements to investigators. A manager, Marlene Faltemier, has a trial date next month. The co-defendants have already paid $800,000 to the victims as part of the sentencing.

Those individuals already convicted are prohibited from being involved in operations related to handling and disposing of hazardous waste in Ventura County. Edwards and RI-NU CEO, Timothy Koziol were former business associates when they both held leadership roles with another waste management organization,  General Environmental Management Inc. (GEM). 

In a letter dated Aug. 5, 2019, to Rob Dal Farra with Sespe Consulting, hired by RI-NU, Winston Wright, planner at VC Planning Department, explains that because the City of Oxnard has not given RI-NU permission to move oil and gas waste water through a pipeline once used by SCWW from the Mission Rock site to the Oxnard Water Treatment Facility (something the current project requires,) “The Planning Division is not inclined to recommend approval of the project as currently designed.” Wright emphasized the need for a pipeline test and that if a significant environmental impact is identified, an Environment Impact Report would need to be conducted as part of the application process to reopen the facility.