Pictured: Laura Espinosa (left), former Santa Paula City Councilmember, president Santa Paula Latino Townhall, Ana Rosa Rizo, executive director One Step a la Vez, Mary Ann Krause, former Mayor of Santa Paula, speaking in opposition to the pending application to reopen the wastewater treatment facility on Mission Rock Road on Nov. 8, 2021 at the Santa Paula Community Center. Photos by Kimberly Rivers.
by Kimberly Rivers
Public outcry is reaching a fever pitch early in the application process for the reopening of a wastewater treatment facility at Mission Rock Road. The facility is north of the Santa Clara River in an unincorporated area outside of Santa Paula and was the site of a 2014 chemical explosion and fire that caused the permanent disability of first responders and resulted in a multiyear criminal investigation and several indictments. At the time, the facility was operated by Santa Clara Waste Water Company (SCWW).
Themes of environmental justice, racism and climate change are being pitted against perspectives citing economic benefit and a need to manage waste, all within a broader context of holding local government, in this case Ventura County, accountable for protecting public health, safety and welfare.
“You can’t mitigate racism,” said Laura Espinosa, former Santa Paula City Councilmember and current president of Santa Paula Latino Town Hall, a local nonprofit organization advocating in the community for 25 years.
“We are strongly opposed to the application and the minimal mitigation recommended by the county of Ventura planning staff.”
Espinosa cited the recent resolution adopted by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors that stated “racism is a public health crisis, that means that every department . . . all should be looking at their policies and the way they do analysis with that perspective.”
Espinosa spoke before a crowd of about 85 people on Nov. 8 at the Santa Paula Community Center at a meeting hosted by the Ventura County Planning Division as a part of the environmental review phase of the permit process.
The county has released a draft Mitigated Negative Declaration document that is subject to public review and comment through Nov. 30. The county identified two significant impacts: incompatibility with nearby agriculture and the risk from hazardous chemicals that will be used onsite to treat the nonhazardous wastewater.
While the city of Santa Paula has little authority over the site as it’s outside city limits, it does control municipal water service to the parcel. In a letter dated March 15, 2021, City Public Works Director Clete Saunier stated that the city would provide water for reopening of the facility, under various general conditions.
The mitigation measures being proposed by the county “to lessen those impacts” from the risk of handling and storage of hazardous chemicals are that the operator will do the following three things: 1. Adopt a risk management plan; 2. Adopt a chemical incompatibility training plan; and 3. Conduct annual tabletop response drills with staff and first responders replicating realistic scenarios that would require an emergency response.
The main change is that the new facility, as part of the Risk Management Plan, would be prohibited from receiving chemicals in totes or drums. It would only receive waste in trucks, and vacuuming of totes or drums into trucks would be prohibited.
To mitigate the negative impacts to agricultural resources, the county is proposing the applicant build a “vegetative screen” around the property, use dust control measures, and create and adopt a notification and response plan.
Many who spoke on Nov. 8 said there are more impacts not being considered, and the mitigations proposed are inadequate.
“It always finds a home”
It is a truism that where there is consumption there is waste. How that waste is disposed of depends on what it is and where it can go. Basic food waste from our kitchens can go to our backyard compost bins or into our garbage.
But what about the more pernicious waste?
Waste products are generated from all sorts of residential, commercial and industrial activities. Porta-potties and septic systems at homes outside municipal sewage service areas, for example, have waste that needs to be managed properly and safely. In areas with active oil fields, the chemicals and additives used in drilling and production come back up with plenty of produced water that also needs to be disposed of.
Solid waste gets handled generally at landfills. But liquid waste gets treated for disposal at wastewater treatment facilities, and then it can be transported to licensed disposal facilities for permanent disposal.
There are various types and classes of facilities, with different requirements and regulations for each. Local governments determine where these types of facilities are located based on land use zoning rules.
About 60 years ago Ventura County authorized a wastewater treatment facility in the area between the cities of Santa Paula and Ventura, just north of the banks of the Santa Clara River. At the time, it was surrounded mostly by agricultural lands. Since then, more houses have been built in the immediate area, a school was built not far away, and the need for waste treatment and disposal only grew.
Until very recently the issue of environmental justice wasn’t on any planning department’s radar. But often, waste sites and industrial polluting facilities are found closer to lower income communities of color.
“If there is no place for waste to go, it always finds a home,” said Timothy Koziol, CEO of RI-NU Services LLC, the current applicant to reopen the facility. He said he’s been in the waste treatment business for a long time and “the problem is, if there’s not a good home for [the waste], it finds the wrong home.” He said “community leaders” in Ventura County have told him that “illegal dumping” is a problem in the county and could increase without properly permitted facilities like the one he is asking to operate.
“It’s not a scare tactic, it is what is happening across the country when there is no place for waste to go.”
Today these facilities may be subject to permitting requirements from the State Water Resources Control Board, the state and federal Environmental Protection Agencies, local environmental health and public works departments, Office of Emergency Services, State Fire Marshal and so on. In California, the local land use authority, in many cases the city or county, is the primary gate for getting permission to operate, through a Conditional Use Permit (CUP).
CUPs are discretionary permits, meaning the county has the authority to approve or deny an application, and if it opts to approve, the permit can place various conditions of approval that must be adhered to or the permit holder risks violations with consequences, up to and including revocation of the permit.
This web of agencies creates a labyrinth of regulations that industry operators point to as demonstrative of strict oversight that protects the public. But in many cases, when a crisis hits, the process reveals built-in regulatory gaps that actually put the public at risk.
Interestingly, in the wake of the explosion at SCWW facility, the county opted to “suspend” the permit rather than revoke it, despite the criminal activity of the permit holders. That fact now allows RI-NU to apply to renew or “unsuspend” the permit rather than having to apply for an entirely new CUP, which could very well have a higher threshold of approval.
What has changed since the explosion?
At the Nov. 8 meeting hosted by the Ventura County Planning Division, several people spoke against the pending application to reopen the wastewater treatment facility on Mission Rock Road.
The operating company at that time, SCWW, was run by Doug Edwards board chairman, William Mitzel CEO. The criminal investigation found that their actions led to the chemical explosion and fires at the site that released a toxic plume of smoke into the air and exposed first responders, including firefighters and ambulance personnel, to harmful chemicals, causing two people to be permanently disabled.
The site had been inspected by Ventura County Environmental Health the week prior to the explosion and received a clean check. As part of the post-explosion investigation, it would come to light that SCWW also had a locked container on site containing chemicals the company had failed to report to the county and state, and which it was prohibited from storing. The county inspectors never asked for that large locked shipping container to be opened.
“We are not SCWW . . . we were not there,” RI-Nu’s Koziol told the crowd at the Nov. 8 meeting. He clarified that he attempted to purchase SCWW in 2009 from Edwards. His company at the time was called General Environmental Management (GEM), a publicly traded company with the label GEVI. In the past year, that company has changed its name three times. But the acquisition was never completed. “Yes, I know them,” referring to the previous facility operators, but he stated that “none of them will be a part of what we do . . . whatsoever.”
William Mitzel of SCWW, however, signed his name on a RI-NU meeting sign-in sheet, dated Jan. 2018, as part of the development of a risk analysis report completed by EnSafe and paid for by RI-NU. Mitzel’s 36-month probationary period prohibited him from participating in the wastewater treatment industry during that time frame.
Koziol did not immediately respond to questions about why Mitzel was at the 2018 meeting. Mitzel could not be reached for comment.
On Nov. 8, Koziol emphasized that the RI-Nu facility would only accept a “strictly non-hazardous waste stream” for treatment and disposal. But the site would need to use chemicals labeled as hazardous, which are used to treat the non-hazardous waste the site would be allowed to accept.
One of those regulatory gaps comes into play here with waste generated by the oil and gas industry. Chemicals, additives, biocides and other compounds that may be termed hazardous prior to use in the oil field are commonly used in the wells to aid in keeping the wells flowing. As those chemicals are flushed back up with the oil and large amounts of water produced with the oil and gas, they are now legally considered non-hazardous and can be accepted at facilities like the proposed RI-NU site. That water can contain “toxic metals and “radioactive substances” according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA document that describes this loophole states that these fluids, once they are used downhold in an oil and gas well, “are relieved from regulation as hazardous wastes, the exemption does not mean these wastes could not present a hazard to human health and the environment if improperly managed.” (1)
At the Nov. 8 meeting, Franca Rosengren, the case planner for the project with the Ventura County Planning Division, said that as part of RI-NU’s current application, the county hired outside consultant Dr. Daniel Tormey with Catalyst Environmental Solutions to study what was required and it was determined that the “existing safeguards and controls were inadequate.”
In response, RI-NU hired EnSafe to develop a risk management analysis and determine the plans and processes required to improve safety at the site. Rosengren said these new “safety measures and controls” will be “added as conditions” to the CUP should it be granted.
Part of the regulatory conundrum is that it’s only as good as the implementation. In Ventura County, the planning division operates under a complaint-driven policy. This means that inspections occur as scheduled in response to complaints, rather than periodic unplanned inspections. All inspections are scheduled. In fact, the clean up that was happening at SCWW when the explosion occurred was in advance of a scheduled inspection.
Koziol cited a study done by the Ventura County Economic Development Collaborative (EDC) that he said determined the monthly payroll for RI-NU would put $140,000 into the local economy each month, adding that “that would turn into [$8.9 million] churning back into your marketplace. But we’d have to operate it correctly or it wouldn’t matter.”
Planning Division Director Dave Ward misspoke in response to a question about where the waste would be coming from. After the meeting, Rosengren confirmed that there are no restrictions in the permit application that would limit from where waste was accepted.
When asked whether the planning division “vets” those applying for these permits, Ward said no, explaining that the county is obligated to process the applications it receives and does not engage in “vetting” the applicants. After the meeting, in response to inquiries from the Ventura County Reporter, Rosengren further clarified that the county does not look into applicants to determine whether they are in good standing with agencies such as the IRS or other government entities, even though it is a condition of CUPs that the permit holder must be in compliance with all applicable local, state and federal laws and regulations.
Voices speaking in opposition on Nov. 8 included many local Santa Paula residents, along with representatives from organizations including Wishtoyo and One Step a la Vez.
Former Santa Paula Mayor Dr. Gabino Aguirre called out Ventura County, saying past concerns 10 years ago during permitting for the site “seemed like [they] fell on deaf ears . . . Ventura County, the Resource Management Agency were derelict in their responsibility to keep this community safe.” He said the fact that planning is not doing a complete EIR “speaks to the inadequate review of this project.”
Regarding the economic benefits cited by Koziol, Aguirra also stated, “If it’s so great . . . Well, take this project home with you and try to sell it to your community . . . waste always finds a home, you know what? Not in our house!”
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Solid Waste, EPA530-K-01-004, Exemption of Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Wastes from Federal Hazardous Waste Regulations (2002) https://yosemite.epa.gov/oa/eab_web_docket.nsf/Attachments%20By%20ParentFilingId/945EF425FA4A9B4F85257E2800480C65/$FILE/28%20-%20RCRA%20E%26P%20Exemption.pdf
- Ventura County Planning Division RI-NU Services project documents: https://vcrma.org/mitigated-negative-declarations/#Ri-Nu
- Nov. 8 RI-NU Services project meeting at the Santa Paula Community Center: