Scenes from an explosion: Oilfield waste chemicals shock, puzzle responders

A 120-barrel vacuum truck blew up at about 3:30 a.m. at the Santa Clara Waste Water treatment plant outside of Santa Paula on November 18th, and blasting the intake yard with over 1000 gallons of a toxic soup of chemicals and sewage. Several employees were severely injured, and three first responders had their lungs burned by caustic fumes. In the aftermath of the explosion, before the incident turned into a full-scale disaster, attempts were made to understand what sort of chemical had caused the explosion.

At the time, the vice-president in charge of operations on site, Chuck Mundy, insisted to firefighters that no hazardous materials were involved, even after a fire broke out.

Forty minutes after the blast, an employee of neighboring oil service company Patriot, a driver, noticed that his boot was on fire. From the search warrant request:

“[Transportation supervisor] Dreher grabbed the boot [of one of his drivers] and took it to firefighters. It had combusted and was on fire. The firefighters were initially surprised. Alex [who had been wearing the boot] was taken from the location and they left the boots behind. As soon as the fire truck [standing in the chemicals blasted from the vacuum truck] was moved one inch, there was a loud pop. Everyone on site was then sent to a decomtamination site based on what was occuring. Dreher said the said the initial explosion was not followed by a fire. The fire was a reaction and it did not happen until 40 minutes after the initial explosion.”

Later the fire engine was destroyed in the fire. As investigators talked to people on the site, some proved more helpful than others. Heavy equipment operator Michael Grindrod took cover and avoided the wost of the blast, but later discovered his lungs were damaged by the toxic. He talked freely, and expressed anger.

“Grindrod said during his time of employment he has seen numerous hazardous conditions including mislabeled or unlabeled containers. At the time of the explosion there were twenty-two 240-gallon totes that contained different chemicals to treat waste. The tanker truck that exploded was in the process of emptying these tote containers. Only five of the twenty-two totes were labeled. The other labels had been removed by employees at the facility and placed into a dumpster at the facility. They did this at the direction of supervisors.”  

“He has also seen the mixing of materials without proper precautions to taken to determine possible or potential reactions. The materials in the totes are vacuumed into the truck without regard for what the materials actually consist of.” 

This is a KTLA segment on the explosion from the day after, showing the scope of the disaster, with their embedded code. It gives a sense of how puzzled investigators were by the chemical.

To be continued…

Published by Kit Stolz

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

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