County planning mulls wastewater in Santa Paula

Here’s my Ojai Valley News story published last Friday on a proposal to relaunch the Santa Clara Waste Water plant in Santa Paula that blew up seven years ago. The short version: Santa Paula doesn’t like the idea, and thinks that only because it’s a low-income Latino town is such a waste-handling plant being pushed on it.

By Kit Stolz, Special to the Ojai Valley News

On Nov. 18, 2014, a truck at Santa Clara Waste Water on the outskirts of Santa Paula blew up in the middle of the night, igniting a chemical fire that released a three-mile long toxic cloud, spurring evacuations and shelter-in-place orders.

An explosion at the Santa Clara Waste Water plant in Santa Paula on November 18, 2014.

As a result, then Sheriff Geoff Dean, as director of Disaster Services, proclaimed a local state of emergency, which the Ventura County Board of Supervisors ratified.

Dozens of people were sent to the hospital, two Santa Paula firefighters were left permanently disabled, and nine company employees were in time arrested, indicted, and charged with 71 crimes. They all pled guilty or no contest to a number of charges.

Seven years later, on Nov. 8, a new management group, led by Tom Koziol, CEO of Fontana-based Ri-Nu Services LLC, brought a proposal to expand and reopen the industrial wastewater facility to about 75 people at a community meeting in Santa Paula, hosted by the county of Ventura Planning Division.

The operation of the proposed facility would differ from the previous one in that the waste materials would be hauled off in trucks, up to 500 a week — for a total of 1,000 truck trips — instead of being piped to an Oxnard water-recycling facility. Before the 2014 explosion, the city of Oxnard suspended the company’s use of the pipeline due to what it described as higher-than-allowed levels of radiation from the materials being processed at the facility. The city of Oxnard has also refused to allow waste to be piped to Oxnard’s facility since the explosion.

Koziol, introducing the proposal at the meeting, said the plant had been “completely redesigned” in consultation with risk-management experts, with the details in the plan reviewed by the Planning Division. “We’re here to say that if we operate the facility, we will operate it in the right way,” Koziol said. He said the facility will only handle “nonhazardous waste” and that the hazardous chemicals required for processing the waste will be stored and locked in a separate new building. He showed plans that detailed how the industrial waste stream from oilfi elds (estimated in the proposal to total about 166,000 gallons a day, primarily “oil and gas sludges”) would be separated from septic waste (estimated to total about 41,000 gallons a day).

Koziol added that the expansion of the plant, from 15 employees to 45, would inject $140,000 a month into the local economy.

Koziol also referenced a newspaper article from six years ago about the city of Santa Paula locking its manholes to prevent illegal dumping, following the explosion and shutdown of Santa Clara Waste Water.

“I’ve been in the (wastewater) business for a long time, and if there’s no place for it to go, it’ll always fi nd a home,” he said.

The remark was noted by Dr. Gabino Aguirre, a former Santa Paula mayor, who responded directly to Koziol: “ ‘Waste always finds a home,’ ” he said, quoting Koziol. “That’s such an ugly way to put it. Well, you know what? Not in our house. You say that it’s safe, that it will be operated and handled safely. You say that it’ll bring $140,000 in benefi ts to the community. Take that $140,000 back to your community.”

Aguirre said the Planning Division had not required a full Environmental Impact Report on reopening the shuttered plant, despite its disastrous history, and said that this is another example of the “inadequate oversight” by the Ventura County government.

“We have been targeted. That’s why we have a county jail, that no other community has here,” he said. “That’s why we have a dump out by the end of Santa Clara Valley that no other community in Ventura County has.”

Other speakers echoed the point. Ginger Gherardi, also a former Santa Paula mayor and retired director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission, said that “because we are a low-income, mostly Latino community, we are once again subject to environmental racism, essentially because the county can get away with it. It is a disgrace and should not be allowed to happen.”

Gherardi said that for many years, the city of Oxnard had accepted for treatment the wastewater from the facility via pipeline, but a month before the explosion Oxnard engineers detected “gross beta” radioactivity in the wastewater from the facility. Oxnard issued a “cease and desist” order to the Santa Clara Waste Water facility in October 2014, but the explosion and closure of the facility made moot the question of the toxicity of its waste.

“Should the facility be allowed to reopen, it is unlikely there will be a change in the composition of the waste, but the increased delivery and disposal of waste will be completely reliant on loading in and out of trucks, activities which put the residents and the surrounding area at much greater risk for another toxic accident,” she said.

John Brooks of Oak View said county government staff members had already made up their minds to approve the application and are trying to “sell it” to the community. He read aloud from press releases in 2009 that described the previous business relationship between Ri-Nu Services LLC CEO Koziol and the former Santa Clara Waste Water chairman. “No one in this valley wants this pollution project in their community,” he said, adding, “Is the environmental justice, or injustice, ‘significant,’ ‘less than ‘significant’ or ‘not significant’? You didn’t even analyze it, you don’t care. … Did you vet the applicant at all when he made the application?”

County Planning Director Dave Ward responded near the end of the meeting that the county Planning Division does not vet applicants. Comments on the proposal to reopen the facility will be taken by the Planning Division until 5 p.m. Nov. 30.

Published by Kit Stolz

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

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