Just a few weeks after receiving an award from a Washington, D.C.-based trade group, disaster struck Ventura County-based Green Compass. A toxic chemical explosion at one of its operations, Santa Clara Wastewater Co., in Santa Paula, triggered one of the biggest environmental calamities in recent years in Ventura County.
On Nov. 18, a vacuum truck exploded at the Santa Clara unit and nearly 50 people were treated for injuries and irritation caused by some 1,000 gallons of hazardous material released, which officials told reporters was bursting into flames at the site.
Nearby residents were evacuated as emergency responders swarmed the site and the Environmental Protection Agency is helping to oversee cleanup operation. Also under scrutiny is a small fire in the facility’s chemical containment area.
Ventura County District Attorney Greg Totten has launched an investigation into the incident but told city officials on Dec. 9 that there is currently no “imminent threat” to the nearby community, with hazards confined to the plant, which has been temporarily closed.
In an email exchange with the Business Times, Santa Clara Chairman Doug Edwards said he expects Patriot Environmental Service’s cleanup of the site to be finished before the end of the month. The site is one of three Green Compass locations in the state.
“Thanks to the rains and its neutralizing effect on the contaminated area, cleanup could be completed in a week,” he said. “Accidents happen. Our character will be judged by how effectively and expeditiously we respond. So far, we have not made company announcements concerning the events as we’ve been asked to remain silent out of respect for the DA’s investigation.”
While the DA probe is not complete, Edwards said the company had recognized potential hazards on site. “This year alone, SCWW has spent millions upgrading environmental safeguards, which worked beautifully in containing the original event. And we have instituted a Personal Protective Equipment policy requiring all workers to have hard hats, safety glasses, and steel toed shoes.”
At a Ventura County Board of Supervisors meeting on Dec. 9, county officials expressed frustration with the incident and the inability for environmental agencies and the company itself to identity the material. Some local residents and city officials at the meeting said companies such as Santa Clara and another Ventura County waste facility, Anterra Corp., need to face more stringent regulations.
Ventura County Supervisor John C. Zaragoza said firefighters were not told about the hazardous nature of the accident and were told it was a sewage explosion, causing them to leave behind protective gear for handling hazardous waste.
“The lack of an official response by the Company has been filled with misinformation of events, the character of the company and its processes, and a general misunderstanding by the public of facts that will come to light in the very near future,” Edwards wrote in his email to the Business Times.
In terms of the award, he said the company hadn’t been contacted prior to receiving 2014 Portfolio Company of the Year honors from the Small Business Investor Alliance. The alliance is a trade group for private equity funds that specializes in smaller middle-market companies.
While public officials such as Zaragoza have called for more careful monitoring of such waste, Santa Clara has maintained that it only deals with non-hazardous waste — as the chemical explosion likely resulted from a reaction involving rainwater, according to field experts — and has safety procedures for preventing such accidents. Edwards said that trucks that come into the facility carry reports about the materials being transported.
“Every truck comes into the facility with a non-hazardous manifest identifying the waste,” he wrote in his email to the Business Times. “All manifests are time stamped in and out. Field tests are taken.”