Explosion: On the heels of SCWW
actions, court appearance fiery

December 04, 2016
Santa Paula News

Santa Clara Waste Water Co. – Green Compass and its officials and managers are facing criminal charges related to a November 18, 2014 toxic explosion near Santa Paula at 815 Mission Rock Road.

By Peggy Kelly 

Santa Paula Times 

On the heels of having two defendants suddenly plead guilty to lesser charges, warrants revealing two confidential informants that are also defendants, injured firefighters filing lawsuits, the state Attorney General joining the prosecution and another raid on Santa Clara Waste Water Co. – Green Compass where investigators found allegedly unreported dangerous chemicals, attorneys for the seven remaining SCWW officials and managers got tough in court Tuesday.

At the December 1 arraignment defendants, their attorneys, Ventura County and newly assigned state prosecutors stretched wall to wall in Judge David Hirsh’s courtroom where various attorneys for the seven remaining defendants accused the DA’s office of wrongdoing including making “misleading statements” in court and said they would study a motion for dismissal of charges. They also alleged the lead prosecutor was removed \The companies’ officials and employees, including CEO William Mitzel and Board Chairman Douglas Edwards, are facing 71 counts of various felony and misdemeanor offenses related to the explosion.

A Ventura County Grand Jury issued an indictment against Santa Clara Waste Water, its parent company Green Compass, and nine company officials and employees in August after three-weeks of testimony involving almost 70 witnesses. 

The counts include conspiracy to commit a crime, disposal of hazardous waste, recklessly handling hazardous waste, known failure to warn of serious concealed danger and causing impairment to an employee’s body; three Santa Paula Firefighters remain off duty and in recent weeks filed a lawsuit seeking damages for injuries allegedly from chemical exposure.

All defendants remain free on $20,000 bail.

Tuesday, nine of the original 11 defendants indicted in the case — managers Mark Avila and Brock Gustin Baker, pleaded guilty last month to some of the charges — were told by Judge David Hirsch to return to court January 14 for arraignment and other motions.

Attorneys for the defendants have characterized the incident as an industrial accident while prosecutors said it was the inevitable result of illegally handled — and possessed — waste and chemicals.

Last week the company filed a motion to sanction the DA’s Office alleging that Senior Deputy District Attorney Christopher Harman made “misleading statements” to the court regarding an employee file seized during the investigation that prosecutors knowingly made “repeated inaccurate representations” to lead the court and the defense to believe the prosecutors did not have the file. 

Attorney Barry Groveman — who represents the companies and CEO Mitzel — and others, also filed a motion with the state Second District Court of Appeals to get documents including various search warrants and employee files. Prosecutors argued the documents should be sealed before arraignment of the defendants because of the ongoing criminal investigation.

In a decision dated Sept. 11, the appellate court found the District Attorney’s Office “acted unreasonably” in refusing access to the employee file and noted its concern “there might have been a deliberate attempt to evade...by improperly withholding access to an employee file.”

Reportedly Groveman also wrote a letter to District Attorney Greg Totten dated September 15 detailing alleged misconduct by prosecutors Harman and Karen Wold. Totten responded September 30 and said Harman was reassigned and would no longer prosecute the case.

In court Tuesday Wold said she was “amendable” to continuing the arraignment to “December 15 and December 15 only,” but Hirsch, noting the thousands of pages that must be studied agreed to continue the hearing to January.

Wold also denied the allegations against prosecutors and inferred that the rhetoric on the side of defense attorneys was unfounded: “There is no prejudice,” she noted, “there are seriously injured people,” as a result of the explosion.

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