Lingering, and potentially explosive,
mystery still surrounds SCWW

December 12, 2014
Santa Paula News

A Board of Supervisors meeting to address the lingering - and potentially explosive - mystery of just what keeps igniting at Santa Clara West Water was instead hijacked by supporters of a second company that wants the continued business.

Supervisors at the December 9 hearing were able to express their frustration and alarm concerning the November 18 explosions as well as a third incident later that created a brief flash fire but caused no injuries.

Supervisor John Zaragoza set the pace by announcing at the meeting his previous remarks that he does not want waste that had been accepted at SCWW trucked by Anterra Corp. to their Oxnard facility in a highly populated area.

Zaragoza had been assured in the past that Anterra would only take certain types of oilfield wastes and not the more than 100 streams accepted by SCWW. 

The first explosion at SCWW came at 3:45 a.m. when the back of a vacuum truck - according to witnesses the property of the company - exploded; hours later at about 8:30 p.m. a second, more serious blast occurred.

About 55 people were injured; three Santa Paula Fire Fighters are still being treated for symptoms of toxic exposure.

Zaragoza said, “The toxic cloud really concerned me,” that later ignited, causing evacuations while public safety responders stood by unable to fight the fire created by unknown chemicals.

Board Chairman Steve Bennett said, “I thought we were going to get answers,” to not only the cause of the incident but also what chemicals were involved and how to prevent such incidents in the future.

Although various public speakers representing or supporting Anterra - including oil industry spokespeople - addressed the board about the company, several speakers tried to steer the issue back to what the meeting was supposed to be focusing on.

Oxnard Vice Mayor Carmen Ramirez noted that SCWW’s permit to discharge its wastes to the city’s wastewater treatment plant was suspended due to radiological - radioactive - waste detected at different times.

She reminded supervisors that in spite of speaker comments about jobs generated by the oil and gas and chemical disposal industries, the first duty of elected officials is “Ensuring the safety of citizens... “ 

After more speakers addressed the looming deadline of Anterra’s temporary permit to haul more waste formally accepted by SCWW, John Brooks, president of Citizens for Responsible Gas & Oil noted, “Let’s not forget why we’re here... people could have died,” in the SCWW blast.

District Attorney Greg Totten said his office continues their criminal investigation into the blast, which is being taken “very seriously... “

He said although he could not publicly share details of the ongoing inquiry, any danger is believed confined to the now locked down plant.

For the short term, Totten said, “We do not believe there is an imminent threat to the quality of air, the quality of water, to the immediate area, and the residents and businesses in those areas.”

He noted that his office has been told that with the passage of time and diluting rain the explosive substance that ignites when dry seems to be becoming less of a threat.

Totten said the “volatile and dangerous” chemical is believed to be an oxidizer, chemical agents that can react with other materials to burn more readily or explode.

Agricultural Commissioner Henry Gonzales, who last week told supervisors soil tests had proven negative of contaminants at surrounding farms, remained in his front row chair when he was not asked to report on the results of product testing.

County staff was able to convey some information to the board regarding the incident, mainly that the investigation by federal and county officials continues.

But the exact identity of the chemical is a mystery and may remain so due to various factors impacting the material - including the explosions - that may have changed its original compounds and chemicals might have been mixed.

In addition, laboratories remain unwilling to test the substance because it is so unstable. 

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