A grand jury in Ventura County has alleged that hazardous materials from a wastewater treatment facility in Santa Paula were trailered to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill in Val Verde, according to a federal agency that investigated an explosion at the facility in 2014.
Los Angeles County officials who oversee the Chiquita Landfill said they relied on reports showing the material was non-hazardous — reports provided by the wastewater company, whose employees pleaded guilty to falsifying reports — and did not conduct an independent investigation.
Santa Clara Waste Water Company of Santa Paula and its parent company were found guilty June 6, 2019, of eight felonies and misdemeanors relating to the explosion and its toxic aftermath. The 78-count indictment was handed down by the Ventura County grand jury in 2015.
Among other violations, the grand jury alleged that “SCWWC also disposed of hazardous waste via (1) a wastewater pipeline to the City of Oxnard’s sewage plant, and (2) trailers to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill. Neither was approved for the disposal of hazardous waste,” according to the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Office of Inspector General, among the multiple agencies that investigated the case.
The indictment also charged nine company officials and employees with a variety of state felony and misdemeanor charges related to the explosion and SCWWC’s disposal of hazardous waste. Their cases are now nearing resolution in Ventura County Superior Court. The ninth and final co-defendant’s trial is set to begin August 16, while final sentencing in the two corporate plea agreements is slated for August 23, according to an email from Dominic Kardum, Supervising Deputy District Attorney for Special Prosecutions in the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.
A plea resolution should provide nearly $3.6 million for victims of the explosion, according to California Department of Justice and Ventura County officials.
As to the waste that was allegedly shipped to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill: What type of trailers did SCWWC use? How many trailers were used? Over what period of time? Was the shipped waste hazardous? And if so, who knew about it?
The Santa Paula Explosion
On Nov. 18, 2014, at approximately 3:45 a.m., a massive explosion occurred at 815 Mission Rock Road in Santa Paula, a wastewater treatment facility owned and operated by SCWWC and its parent company, Green Compass Environmental Solutions LLC, according to court records.
The initial blast caused more than 1,000 gallons of chemicals to spill, which resulted in a fire that set off a chain reaction of explosions involving other hazardous materials.
Authorities ordered mandatory evacuations for everyone within a mile of the facility as toxic chemical residue from the explosion spread on the ground and into the atmosphere. Shelter-in-place orders were issued for everyone within a 3-mile radius, and a local elementary school and Highway 126 were closed.
Dozens of people were examined and treated at local hospitals for exposure to the toxic vapors. Two SCWWC employees and three Santa Paula firefighters who responded to the blast were hurt. The firefighters entered SCWWC without any special protection after being told it was only a sewage explosion. All three firefighters went out on disability leave and their fire engine was a total loss.
An explosion at the Santa Clara Waste Water Co. facility in Santa Paula injured more than three dozen people on Nov. 18, 2014. | Photo: KTLA.
A nine-month investigation into the explosion and its aftermath was conducted by the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office, the Ventura County Environmental Health Department, the Ventura County Fire Department, the California Department of Justice’s Fraud and Special Prosecution Section, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division, and the aforementioned USDOT Inspector General.
State and federal authorities joined Ventura County in the probe because SCWWC parent Green Compass also operates facilities in Orange and Kern counties and conducts waste disposal services in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Investigators ultimately determined that early in the morning prior to the Santa Paula explosion, company employees were engaging in an overnight “cleanup” effort. The explosion occurred when hazardous materials were sucked from approximately 20 individual unlabeled chemical totes into a vacuum cargo tank trailer that was not rated to hold or transport chemicals.
One year after the explosion, a search warrant served on SCWWC also led to the discovery of approximately 5,500 gallons of sodium hydroxide, aka Petromax, stored in a locked shipping container. Corporate officials had not reported possessing these chemicals to the California Environmental Reporting System, as legally required, since 2013.
Further, investigators found that SCWWC was storing more hazardous materials than permitted in its inventory and alleged that company officials directed employees to transfer hazardous materials to an unsecured truck lot off-site prior to a Defense Logistics Agency contractor’s scheduled inspection of the facility, which would have revealed the excess waste.
The Prosecution: Indictments & Convictions
The 78 charges against SCWWC, Green Compass and the nine executives and managers in the grand jury indictment of August 19, 2015, included a variety of felonies and misdemeanors. Among them were conspiracy to dispose of hazardous waste; failure to warn of a serious concealed danger; handling a hazardous waste with a reckless disregard for human life; withholding information regarding a substantial danger to public safety; filing a false or forged instrument; and dissuading a witness.
Ventura City Hall, 501 Poli Street, Ventura, California (Ventura Historic Landmark No. 4). | Photo: Cbl62/WMC 4.0.
The nine individuals indicted were Douglas Edwards, chairman of the board; William Mitzel, chief executive officer; Charles Mundy, vice president of environmental health, safety and facility operations; Dean Michael Poe, vice president of oil and gas sales; Brock Gustin William Baker, operations manager; Marlene Faltemier, human resources manager; David Wirsing, transportation manager; Mark Avila, supervisor; and Kenneth Griffin, shift supervisor.
Following the Petromax raid in 2015, SCWWC sued Ventura County in an ultimately failed attempt to have the chemical designated as non-hazardous, meaning the company remained liable for its mismanagement.
On June 6, 2019, the corporate defendants Green Compass Environmental Solutions LLC and Santa Clara Waste Water Co. pleaded “no contest” to eight crimes, including four felonies and four misdemeanors.
The felonies were conspiracy to impede an environmental enforcement officials; knowing failure to warn of a serious concealed danger, specifically sodium chloride; filing a false or forged instrument for recording in public office; and dissuading a witness from reporting a crime.
The misdemeanors included: impeding an environment enforcement official; failure to update the hazardous materials business plan; failure to update the hazardous materials inventory; and submission of false records or statements to the California Environmental Reporting System.
As a result of their pleas, Green Compass and SCWWC will be ordered to pay $2,797,621 in restitution, on top of $800,000 in restitution previously paid by other convicted co-defendants, for a total amount of court-ordered victim restitution of $3,597,621.
The plea deal was the result of the joint prosecution by the California Department of Justice and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office. The August 23 sentencing hearing for the two corporate defendants in Ventura County Superior Court is set for Courtroom 33.
As to the maximum penalties Green Compass and SCWWC face: “Penalties are determined by the sentencing court who will make those orders on (or about) August 23,” said Dominic Kardum, the supervising deputy district attorney, who declined further comment until after the sentencing.
To date, eight of the nine individually charged co-defendants have entered pleas. The final co-defendant whose trial begins August 16 is Marlene Faltemier.
An aerial view of the Chiquita Canyon Landfill on May 20, 2010. | Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Chiquita Hazardous Waste Disposal: Who Knew?
Dean Michael Poe, one of the nine co-defendants, pleaded guilty March 24, 2017, to one felony count of conspiracy to commit the crime of disposal of hazardous waste. The plea agreement was made with Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten.
According to court documents, investigators had found that in June 2014, Poe provided samples from SCWWC to BC Labs, a local environmental laboratory, for chemical analysis. A month later, BC Labs sales representative Alin Repede told Poe the chemical analysis proved the waste samples were indeed hazardous.
However, Poe failed to take any corrective action at SCWWC and did not report the information to regulatory authorities.
Poe, who surrendered to Ventura County authorities in August 2015 — but not before a sheriff’s SWAT team raid prompted him to sue the county — was sentenced to four months in custody followed by 36 months’ probation, along with a $5,000 fine and victim restitution in an amount determined by the court.
While on probation, Poe was barred from employment in several capacities, including collecting lab samples to be used for waste testing and transporting hazardous waste.
When asked by email if Poe had or may have had anything to do with shipping tractor-trailers of waste, hazardous or not, from SCWWC facilities to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill, Kardum declined to elaborate on the felony disposition statement in the 2017 plea deal. “I am unable to comment further as the information you’re seeking relates to evidence and issues in a pending case before the Ventura County Superior Court,” he said.
“Prosecution of the other defendants is still ongoing,” Nathan Richmond wrote in an email. Richmond is director and counsel for Congressional and External Affairs, Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Transportation. He also said he could not comment further until the case was over.
LA County, Chiquita Officials Say No Hazardous Waste Sent to Landfill
Meanwhile, Los Angeles County officials disputed the assertion that hazardous materials were dumped in the local landfill, although they said they relied on Santa Clara Waste Water Company manifests and did not conduct an independent investigation of the discarded materials.
Steven Frasher, L.A. County Public Works’ community engagement liaison and public information officer, said his agency was unable to immediately determine if, or how many, cargo tank trailers of “goopy” hazardous waste, as he described it, may have been shipped from SCWWC to Chiquita Canyon. “The trailers are cargo tank tractor-trailers typically used to carry substances with high liquid content,” he said in an email.
“From what I understand, it’s all in a big stack of manifests that would be very time-consuming to put together, and certainly couldn’t be put together in this (short) deadline frame,” Frasher said, referring to the shipping manifests that waste shippers are legally required to complete, either declaring the waste is hazardous or certifying that it’s not.
“It’s a legal affidavit and to the extent that Public Works receives it, (the shipper) has stated that what’s in the shipment is in line with what the landfill can receive,” he said, adding that the county’s Public Health Department is the local enforcement agency.
“Public Works did not make an independent determination that the waste was not hazardous,” Frasher said in his email. “Public Works reviewed records demonstrating that SCWWC provided Non-Hazardous Waste Manifests for the material that it disposed (of) at Chiquita Canyon Landfill indicating the content of the material and that it was Non-Hazardous, in accordance with the landfill’s regulatory requirements.”
Tony Bell, communications deputy for Los Angeles County Supervisor Kathryn Barger, wrote in an email: “I’m told by (LA County) Public Works that the materials sent to Chiquita were soil, drilling muds, drilling cuttings and tank bottoms from the Santa Clara Waste Water Company that were not deemed to be hazardous, and were disposed at the landfill.” The Chiquita Canyon Landfill lies within Barger’s fifth supervisorial district.
An aerial view of the Chiquita Canyon landfill on June 14, 2018. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
“These materials were not prohibited by (LA County’s) Conditional Use Permit or state regulation,” Bell said. “After this incident, the landfill no longer received materials from the SCWWC.”
“We are unaware of any findings from the DOT/OIG investigation involving the Santa Clara Waste Water Company,” said John Musella, spokesman for Chiquita Canyon Landfill, in response to an SCVNews email query that included links to the news releases from the federal and Ventura County officials alleging, among other things, the transport of hazardous materials to Chiquita.
Asked how many trailers Chiquita may have received from SCWWC, or how Chiquita determined any waste accepted from SCWWC was not hazardous, Musella said, “Chiquita Canyon only accepts non-hazardous solid waste for disposal,” not liquid.
“There are extensive government regulations and oversight to ensure the proper acceptance of waste materials at solid waste disposal facilities, including Chiquita Canyon,” he said.