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Two Former Wastewater Company Officials Sentenced on California State Charges Related to a Hazardous Materials Fraud Scheme

On November 22, 2019, former employees of Santa Clara Waste Water Company (SCWWC)—operations manager Gus Baker and facility manager Mark Avila—were sentenced in Superior Court of Ventura County, California. Baker and Avila were each sentenced to 36 months’ probation, 2 months’ of suspended jail time, and a $150 fine. They had been charged with circumventing hazardous materials regulations and on November 20, 2015, pleaded guilty to failing to warn of a serious concealed danger, impeding enforcement, and illegally storing and labeling hazardous materials.
DOT-OIG’s investigation began in 2014, after a vacuum cargo tank trailer containing hazardous waste exploded at the SCWWC facility in Santa Paula, California. The explosion caused over 1,000 gallons of chemicals to spill, resulting in a fire that set off a series of explosions involving hazardous materials. Toxic smoke blanketed the area around SCWWC. Authorities ordered mandatory evacuations for everyone within a mile of SCWWC, issued shelter-in-place orders for everyone within a 3-mile radius, and closed a local elementary school and Highway 126. Dozens of people were examined and treated at local hospitals for exposure. Two SCWWC employees and three Santa Paula firefighters who responded to the blast were hurt. The firefighters entered SCWWC without any special protection after they were told it was only a sewage explosion. All three firefighters went on disability leave, and the fire engine was destroyed.
The investigation revealed that SCWWC stored hazardous materials in excess of the amounts its inventory was permitted to have for the treatment process. Prior to scheduled inspections, SCWWC officials would direct the transfer of the hazardous materials to an unsecured truck lot offsite. On the morning of the explosion, a Defense Logistics Agency contractor was scheduled to inspect SCWWC, and internal clean-up efforts were underway. Hazardous materials had been sucked from approximately 20 unlabeled chemical totes into a vacuum cargo tank trailer when the explosion occurred. SCWWC also disposed of hazardous waste via a wastewater pipeline to the City of Oxnard’s sewage plant, and via trailers to the Chiquita Canyon Landfill. Neither the pipeline nor the trailers were approved for the disposal of hazardous waste.
DOT-OIG conducted this investigation with the Environmental Protection Agency–Criminal Investigation Division and the Ventura County District Attorney’s Office.