Pictured: The secondary chemical fire that engulfed Santa Clara Waste Water on Mission Rock Road in Santa Paula on Nov. 18, 2014. Photo submitted. 

by Kimberly Rivers

On Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021, Jeff Barry, a former investigator with the Ventura County District Attorney’s Major Fraud Division, will share with the public his experiences as the lead investigator into the cause, conspiracy and other criminal acts that led to an explosion, fire and chemical exposures at a wastewater disposal and treatment facility in Santa Paula in November 2014. 

“As the lead investigator, I was professionally and personally invested in this incident and spent years uncovering the truth,” said Barry, responding via email to the Ventura County Reporter. “There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of those that were permanently injured by something that could have been prevented. I think it also took a toll on me emotionally. I can’t see a tanker truck on the freeway now without thinking about the case, or at least instinctively trying to get as far away from it as possible.”

Barry is coming back to Santa Paula from his home in the greater Chicago area without any compensation (online correction).  When asked what he hopes the public takes away from his presentation, he referred to the need for changes in how wastewater facilities report to regulatory agencies about their operations, and the importance of making the evidence and reports associated with the investigation public. 

“I encourage better transparency,” he said. “The District Attorney has the ability to make the investigation records easily accessible and available to the public, for example, on his website. Access to government records as important as this should not be complicated or burdensome. In fact, public access to government records is vital and gives people the tools to understand, actively participate, and help shape future public policy.”

BEST INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING | “The hazardous truth” is the title of an award-winning article published by the Ventura County Reporter, written by freelance journalist Kit Stoltz and printed on Nov. 15, 2015, a year after the explosion at Santa Clara Waste Water. The award was given by the California Newspaper Publishers Association for “Best Investigative Reporting,” noting that the story is “an excellent example of using court records and other documentation to explain what happened in an catastrophic environment event.”  The story can be read online at https://vcreporter.com/2015/11/the-hazardous-truth/. Pictured: Plastic totes containing chemicals completed melted in the chemical fire after being coated by the incendiary substance strewn across Santa Clara Waste Water by a chemical explosion on Nov. 18, 2014. Photo provided by Ventura County Fire Department.

He points to the fact that while records and search warrants are sealed during active investigations, prosecutions and trials, it has now been seven years since these events occurred. “Much of the Santa Clara Waste Water investigation was never made public in a manner that is easily accessible. There was no public report. Grand jury hearings were behind closed doors (as required by law) and search warrants were sealed from public view (to protect the integrity of the investigation at the time)…The defendants and corporations have since entered guilty pleas to a variety of criminal charges.”

Barry also pointed out that the Ventura County Superior Court has unsealed the records associated with the case. 

“However, based on the volume of information — we are talking about tens of thousands of pages of evidence — the cost to obtain, and the complexity in understanding them, I think it’s difficult for the average person to comprehend what happened.”

Barry’s presentation distills down the mountain of evidence and tells the story of the immediate hours, days and weeks after the explosion and fires, and the following months and years, as the layers of criminal activity were uncovered.

“My hope is that people who attend the presentation leave with a better understanding of the incident and steps we can take to prevent it from happening again.”

His investigation led to 71 charges against nine SCWW employees. All were indicted and pleaded guilty.

An event that could have been prevented

On Nov. 18, 2014, the community of Santa Paula was rocked by an explosion at a wastewater disposal facility called Santa Clara Waste Water on Mission Rock Road. The back of a vacuum truck exploded and was thrown across the facility. The vacuum truck was cleaning up a chemical spill at 3:45 a.m., a chemical that wasn’t supposed to be stored at that facility. When it mixed with another substance in the vacuum truck, the chemical reaction caused an explosion that also spread a mixture across the ground, coating buildings, tanks and wastewater and chemical storage bins called “totes” throughout the facility. 

When firefighters responded, their boots caught on fire as they walked through a white, powdery substance on the ground. The tires of the fire engine ignited upon contact with the substance as well. The mixture dispersed by the initial explosion had now transformed into an incendiary substance that was combusting when disturbed. This reaction ultimately led to the secondary fire event, when much of the facility, including plastic totes filled with chemicals, all went up in flames, sending a toxic cloud into the air. The Todd Jail and a nearby school were ordered to shelter in place, a local emergency was declared for 60 days. 

Firefighters began to have trouble breathing and were transported to area emergency rooms. All the while, the operators of Santa Clara Waste Water told investigators that all they handled was sewage. 

Barry was one of the first to see the aftermath. He moved quickly to interview dozens of people and would ultimately write and execute search warrants. His investigation created tens of thousands of pages of evidence that demonstrated how the facility’s owners, with some employees, conspired to break the law and lie to investigators, putting everyone on site and the surrounding public at risk. 

A specialized team takes samples from unlabeled barrels inside an unmarked locked container at Santa Clara Waste Water in 2015. The chemical turned out to be a compound called PetroMax containing hazardous substances the company was not allowed to have on site. Photo submitted.

Ventura County inspectors had conducted a scheduled inspection of the site the week prior to the incident. The illegally kept chemical, called PetroMax, had been stored onsite for at least several months, in an unmarked, locked storage container. All chemical storage containers are required to be clearly labelled. County inspectors failed to notice the locked, unlabeled container. 

RI-NU applies to renew permit

RI-NU Services LLC has submitted an application to renew the Conditional Use Permit (CUP) under which the previous operator, Santa Clara Waste Water, operated. 

RI-NU operations will consist of  accepting for disposal “wastewater, such as, but not limited to, porta-potty waste, septic tank waste, and oilfield wastewater…The wastewater would be treated onsite to separate solids and liquids, consolidated and then trucked to off-site permitted disposal facilities,” according to the permit application.  

As part of the application process for the permit renewal, the county has identified two significant impacts of the wastewater treatment and disposal facility operated by RI-NU. These include “Impacts on agricultural resources related to land use incompatibility with the proposed wastewater treatment facility,” and “Impacts related to the handling and storage of hazardous materials (chemicals) that are used during the treatment process of the wastewater accepted at the facility.”   

The public can attend a Nov. 8 community meeting held by the Ventura County Planning Division to provide input and feedback on the application, environmental document and county-proposed mitigations.  

“The Hazardous Truth: The Criminal Investigation Into the 2014 Santa Clara Waste Water Explosion,” presented by Jeff Barry, takes place on Tuesday, Nov. 2, at 6:30 p.m. at the Regency Santa Paula 7, 550 W. Main St., Santa Paula. RSVP recommended; contact SPreservation20@aol.com.

The Ventura County Planning Division Community Meeting takes place on Monday, Nov. 8, at 6 p.m. at the Santa Paula Community Center, 530 W. Main St., Santa Paula. Written public comment can be submitted to the county through Nov. 30, 3021. RSVPs for interpretation are encouraged by calling 805-654-2635. RSVP online at: www.vcrma.org/ri-nu-wastewater-treatment-facility. 

The application and environmental documents can be seen in hard copy at County of Ventura, Resource Management Agency, Planning Division, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura, CA, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday, Wednesday, or Friday. 

The public can submit written comments regarding the RI-NU Services LLC application to Franca A. Rosengren via email: Franca.Rosengren@ventura.org or by mail to: Ventura County Planning Division, Attn: Franca A. Rosengren, 800 S. Victoria Ave., Ventura, CA, 93009.