Pictured: A fire burns at Santa Clara Wastewater treatment site after an initial explosion at the site on Mission Rock Road in Santa Paula. Nov. 18, 2014. File photo. 

by Kimberly Rivers

The crowd applauded Monday night when Dr. Gabino Aguirre, Santa Paula resident, suggested that Timothy Koziol, chief executive officer of RI-NU Services LLC, take the wastewater treatment facility being proposed to his hometown in San Bernardino County rather than reopening the site of a 2014 explosion that permanently disabled several people, including firefighters. Aguirre was talking directly to Koziol on July 26 at a town hall meeting hosted by the Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce at the Santa Paula Community Center.  

Timothy Koziol speaking at the town hall style meeting at the Santa Paula Community Center on Aug. 2, 2021. Screen capture of video recording.

In 2014, the site in question was operated by a company called Santa Clara Waste Water (SCWW). A man named Doug Edwards was the president of SCWW at the time of the explosion. After an investigation conducted by the Ventura County District Attorney, SCWW was found to be criminally responsible for the explosion and was ordered to pay restitution. 

The bulk of those payments is held up, pending the sale of the site, which is dependent on RI-NU being granted a “reinstatement” of the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) governing operations. There are still firefighters waiting for restitution payments related to injuries and damage to their lungs that they will suffer from their entire lives. (“Extreme, reckless, disregard,” $2.8 million for explosion victims tied to new permit renewal, Kimberly Rivers, Ventura County Reporter, Aug. 28, 2019)

In May, the Ventura County Planning Department deemed the permit submitted by RI-NU complete and began work on a Mitigated Negative Declaration, the environmental review document for the project. That document has not yet been completed. 

“Our position would be that it’s an important part of the marketplace,” Koziol told the crowd on July 26. “Waste will always find a place to go. If there’s not a place for waste to go there are problems with that.” 

Koziol noted that a facility is needed to accommodate waste from several sectors, including agriculture and industry, such as waste from winery processes. The site will also receive and treat certain oil and gas field waste products. 

“We have heard from many people in the county about illegal storage, illegal dumping, because there is no place for it to go,” Koziol said. When a company is properly handling waste, he said the public is protected “in the long run.”

“You keep talking about the marketplace,” Aguirre countered, pointing out that the business plan is “investing in environmental degradation . . . I would say, given the treatment that the injured have not received from the organization [SCWW], I would say that you have blood on your hands already. We do not want to see that here again.” 

Koziol said it was “frightening” to him that he’s hearing from local officials that illegal dumping of waste is taking place. 

The 2014 explosion occurred when a chemical called Petromax used in the processing of waste products was loaded into a waste truck, causing a chemical reaction and explosion as well as spontaneous combustion. 

The bank accounts of the individual company leadership of SCWW were not impacted as a result of the settlement agreement reached. Instead,the restitution amounts are contingent on SCWW being able to recoup monies from being sold to RI-NU, which in turn is dependent on RI-NU obtaining a new permit to operate a waste treatment facility at the same location. 

“This looks like environmental racism,” said Aguirre, referring to the largely working class community made up of Latinx residents that live near the site. 

“The Santa Clara Valley is asked over and over again to bear the environmental costs for other areas,” said Kate English, a resident of the area. That is a “form of environmental racism. It’s been happening since before the original CUP.” She asked what RI-NU is going to ??grow??did you mean another word?? along the lines of “equity and inclusion.” 

Koziol spent the bulk of his presentation making the case that a well-run waste treatment facility at that location would benefit the local “marketplace.” He mentioned the payroll of $140,000 a month the company would support and that the hiring would take place in Santa Paula. 

“The facility has enormous emotions attached to it because of all of the issues that happened with the accident,” Koziol said during his presentation.  “Our intent is to open it, open it safely . . . with higher and stricter guidelines for safety and protocols.”

Several public speakers questioned how Koziol could ensure the facility would be run in a safer manner when the county, as the agency responsible for enforcing the previous company’s permit, failed to respond to multiple complaints — some received just days prior to the 2014 explosion. Koziol responded that he could “not comment” on the county’s processes or approach to responding to complaints. 

Koziol, along with Rob Del Farra of Sespe Consulting, emphasized that if approved the site will only be permitted to handle wastes classified as “non-hazardous” but that some “hazardous materials” will be stored and used on site in the waste treatment processes. Mechanical processes such as shaking, filtering and aerating are used to separate certain types of wastes. 

According to Koziol, plans for the site include construction that will protect the facility from flooding and heavy rains, as well as periodic review by the Ventura County Fire Department to ensure they know what is onsite. 

Del Farra confirmed the project site is in a FEMA flood zone. 

A mixing of such chemicals is what led to the 2014 explosion and Koziol emphasized that their permit application includes several mitigations to prevent such an “accident” in the future, including ensuring that the hazardous treatment chemicals are properly stored in a designated building on site, and trucks carrying waste to be treated into the facility are kept separate from other vehicles. 

As of Aug. 3,  planning documents, including the initial study checklist and Mitigated Negative Declaration from the Ventura County Planning Department, are “not open for public comment yet,” according to Franca Rosengren, senior planner. 

The 30-day public review period has not yet begun. Following that 30-day period, the project will go before the Ventura County Planning Commission and then the Board of Supervisors for final approval. Those public hearings are slated to occur in early 2022. 

Publicly available documents are online at the county website, and the public can sign up to receive notification about the project at vcrma.org/ri-nu-wastewater-treatment-facility.

Video of July 26 town hall meeting: www.youtube.com/watch?v=uoJZzjlBKg4&list=PLPxYEqnNBsmOVjjglLPEuhJds64eyXpEC&index=2.