An oilfield waste plant blows up in Santa Paula: from the police interviews

On November 18th of last year, a vacuum truck at an oilfield wastewater treatment plant outside Santa Paula blew up. Besides severely injuring several people on site, including three firefighters, the explosion led to an extraordinarily dangerous fire and a cloud of toxic chlorine gas that drifted west over farm fields and sent 46 people to the hospital. Last week nine people were arrested and charged, including the president and former CEO of Santa Clara Waste Water, and this week the judge unsealed the Grand Jury indictment, which totalled 71 — that’s right, 71 — felony charges, based on the testimony of 67 — that’s right, 67 — witnesses.

Also available, for the price of the copying, were the first two of nine search warrants, which contain all sorts of information based on interviews by police immediately after the disaster.

Here, based on interviews with three truck drivers who were on the site and working the night shift that disastrous night, a couple of accounts of what it was like in the moments just before the 120-barrel vacuum truck blew up.

About five hours after the explosion, special investigator Jeff Barry interviewed Chuck Mundy, a vice-president in charge of operations. But first, the booking photo of Mundy:

Charles Mundy
Charles Mundy

Here’s what Mundy said was going on just before the explosion.

“Mundy said a vaccum truck was doing on site work and cleaning out tanks and trenches. The vacuum was sucking solids out of the trench and then sucked up material from the domestic centrifuge tanks at the site. The employee then sucked up materials located in the “totes” [large plastic containers] on the site and cleaning out and rinsing polymer totes.”

Catch that? The employee was indiscriminately mixing unknown chemicals from a variety of industrial sources.

If it was true that the plant handled only non-hazardous materials, as Santa Clara Waste Water executives and employees repeatedly assured police officials and regulators, that might have been okay.

But Santa Clara employees were lying about not handling hazardous materials.  Or so the district attorney alleges. 

A few minutes later, still early in the morning after the explosion, the special investigator interviewed the supervisor, Kenny Griffin.

“He said the truck that exploded was “just sitting there” after “pulling some totes.” The truck was parked and everything was turned off. The driver was on his [night shift] lunch break. The pressure release valve for the truck started to steam. Griffin heard the sound because he was standing to the side of the truck. He walked from the back of the container and as he got to the edge of the truck he looked inside and the back of it “blew off.” I asked him what was in the tote that the vacuum truck was sucking in and he said he didn’t know. He said “There is different things that it could be.” Griffin said they put less than 8 totes into the vacuum truck from one section of the facility.”

So Griffin admitted he supervised the mixing of at least eight chemicals into one tanker truck with no knowledge of their composition. How could anyone be so reckless?

Kenneth Griffin
Kenneth Griffin

About twelve hours after the explosion, in a hospital room, another investigator interviewed a truck driver who was injured in the explosion, named Mike Topete.

“On the morning of November 18th, sometime between 3:30 a.m. and 4:00 a.m., he was standing outside about 20-feet from an “805 Express” tanker truck. Topete described the truck as being a 120 barrel truck. Topete said it was windy and he was what he thought was dust coming off the top of the tanker truck. He looked over at the truck and said he realized the dust was actually vapors or steam coming from the top of the tanker truck.”

“Topete then heard a “violent noise” described as “a roar or hissing” coming from the tanker truck. He believed it was an escape of air pressure. At that time, he began to walk away from the tanker truck. While he was walking away, he saw a blue flame emitting from the same area where he heard the hissing. At that point, he began to run away from the truck because he was scared. Topete planned to dive down on the ground because he thought something bad was going to happen. Topete got about ten feet of distance away when he heard a blast behind him. The pressure wave of the blast pushed him to the ground. He felt debris from the tanker truck hit his body. He felt a “good whack” on his left leg [that opened a four-inch laceration]. Topete fell hard to the ground.”

“As he fell to the ground, Topete saw a large cloud of black smoke come towards him from the explosion. He wanted to get up and run. At that point, however, he inhaled a large plume of smoke that came toward him from the explosion. This caused Topete to fall down again. At this point, Topete felt very hot and he could feel his body was covered in liquid. The liquid felt like it was burning his clothes. At the time of the explosion, he was wearing blue coveralls, rubber boots, leather gloves, protective eye glasses, and a hard hat. His pants were tucked into his boots. Several coworkers ran to his aid and helped him remove his clothes because they were covered in burning material. The coworkers performed first aid on Topete’s leg. In addition to his leg, Topete felt pain all over his body.”

Among the 71 felony charges, Mundy, supervisor Gus Brock, Mark Avila, and Griffin are charged with causing great bodily injury or death by emitting an air contaminant in the case of Mike Topete.


Published by Kit Stolz

I'm a freelance reporter and writer based in Ventura County.

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