Answers still scarce almost two months
following SCWW explosions, fires

January 16, 2015
Santa Paula News

Hundreds of truckloads of solidified material have been taken to a Los Angeles County landfill, the Ventura County Sheriff requested another extension of the declaration of emergency, the Incident Command Post - including the federal Environmental Protection Agency - was dismantled, Santa Paula still has three injured firefighters on medical leave and people throughout the region remain baffled as to just what happened at Santa Clara Waste Water.

The facility, located at 815 Mission Rock Road, west of Santa Paula city limits, was the scene of explosions and fires that started in the early morning of November 18. 

Now, almost two months later the criminal investigation by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office continues, a $7 million lawsuit has been filed by the facility’s owner against its own insurer and no one knows - and probably will never know - what toxic chemicals were involved in the incident.

According to the Ventura County Health status report log for the incident, on January 9, “Analytical results of the remaining solidified material came back yesterday and none of the solidified material exceeded any thresholds for classification as a hazardous waste.”

Rick Bandelin of VCEH said last week that removal had started of what remained of the approximately 1,000 gallons of chemicals that exploded out of the back of a vacuum truck at 3:45 a.m. on November 18.

Although chemicals were spewed up to 400-feet throughout the facility, the bulk of the spill was captured in a concrete pond; material that dried that morning spontaneously combusted causing firefighters’ boots to catch fire and sending toxic smoke off the tires of a Santa Paula Fire engine, which was abandoned at the scene. Ventura County Fire also left an engine at the site.

Those at SCWW repeatedly assured arriving emergency responders that the spillage was sewer wastewater. The initial explosion left two men - one a SCWW employee, the other employed by Patriot Environmental Services - injured, one of them critically.

Just hours later a vapor cloud exploded igniting chemicals stored at the company - believed to include sulfuric acid - that created a three-mile long plume of toxic smoke. Evacuations were ordered and a half-mile radius of the facility remained off limits for almost five days.

In all, 55 people were injured including the three SPFD fire fighters that were first on the scene. Those firefighters remain on medical leave while being treated for respiratory illnesses that resulted from inhaling the unknown substances. 

Due to the volatility of the material it was only when it was deactivated - the result of the fires, time and rain - that labs would accept it for testing.

The remnants were a different story: Bandelin said what had been in the concrete holding basin, described by another county official as a “toxic pool of goo” was solidified using what is called “rock dust, which is crushed rock with the consistency similar to dirt... “

Although there is no information on how many tons was transported to the Los Angeles-based Chiquita Landfill in the eastern portion of the Santa Clara River Valley, Bandelin said hundreds of trucks transported the material. 

Soil samples were collected from areas of the site that do not have concrete, which will determine if any soil excavation or remediation is required. 

“Fencing,” notes the VCEH incident webpage, “has been erected as the facility transitions from emergency response activities to cleanup and housekeeping activities.”

Gone are the now stripped down Santa Paula Fire and Ventura Fire engines left at the scene, the latter involved in the second, larger explosions. Both engines are now stored under tarps while insurance claims are pending. 

Also gone are the two remaining 70-barrel vacuum trucks that were located within the main spill area, sitting for weeks in the deep “pond of goo” that reached midway up their oversized tires. Their contents were sampled and determined to be sewage, t0hat those on the scene had repeatedly told emergency responders what the exploded material was. The two trucks were reportedly decontaminated.

A Santa Paula mechanic was also sickened after he visited the scene to examine the engine, which was still parked where it had been left when firefighters attempted to leave the property but their tires ignited into a cloud of toxic smoke. 

Santa Clara Waste Water has other woes: within days of the explosion Oxnard pulled its permit letting the company dispose of its wastes via a 12-mile-long pipeline that connects to the city’s treatment plant.

The explosion was not the issue but rather numerous incidents of Oxnard finding evidence of radioactive material that had come from SCWW.

The city noted in the letter that not only was the permit pulled but also that Oxnard’s waste intake valve had been shutdown.

Mission Rock Road neighbors of Santa Clara Waste Water remain uneasy, especially Jenny and Nils Castillo who had contacted the county for more than a year to voice their concern about the odor and fumes coming from SCWW... but especially about the large amount of outside normal business hours that night truck traffic dumping at the facility that no one seemed to know could be so dangerous.





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