Scenes from an explosion: “Nothing to worry about — it’s just sewer water.”

After a vacuum truck blew up in the yard of Santa Paula Waste Water last November, the Santa Paula Fire Department arrived at shortly before 4:00 a.m. According to the interview with Captain Milo Bustillos, they were told “You have nothing to worry about it is just treated sewer water.”

As Bustillos and two other firemen looked around the plant, they were told “There is nothing toxic here, there is no chemicals, we are fine.” 

Bustillos did not at first notice the exploded vacuum truck in the darkness. When he saw that its back had been blown off, and realized they were standing in the soup of chemicals blasted throughout the yard, he became alarmed.

“We are in it now?” he asked. And when he was reassured again, he said “Don’t fucking lie to me, it’s not sewer water.” 

As Bustillos taped off the area, his boots caught fire. According to the interview detailed in the search warrant request:

“Bustillos called the Incident Commander and reported what happened. He tried to move the Santa Paula Fire Department truck. When the truck moved a short distance, a massive fireball erupted and engulfed the fire engine. It burned for approximately 10 seconds.”

Bustillos and the other firemen were evacuated. He felt sick and had difficulty breathing. Since then he has been taken off duty with serious lung and sinus cavity damage from the fumes. He said the doctors do not know how to treat him because they do not know what he was exposed to. He coughs often and the coughing does not provide relief. He is worried about his future health problems. He said:

“If they just would have been truthful when we got on the scene none of this would have happened.” 



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The Martian Way: Section I of PCT/Sonora Pass

Nicholas Kristof for the NYTimes, who is walking the PCT with his daughter, heading south, wrote recently in a Sunday column about the joy and beauty of the trail, and extolled in particular one section of the trail I happen to have just completed, towards the end of Section I. From This Land is Your Land:

My daughter and I are hiking the full Pacific Crest Trail, 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada, in the narrow window in which she’s strong enough and I’m not yet decrepit. We’ve hiked half and hope to finish in another five or six years.

My favorite area this time was the area south of Sonora Pass, a stunning landscape of jagged peaks, snow patches and alpine lakes. We found it more intoxicating than any microbrew.

That’s all true, but Kristof mostly describes the classic Yosemite Wilderness, made of granite and pine and water, and not Sonora Pass, made metamorphic rock, arid, red, jagged, inhospitable, and million miles away from the lush canyons and smooth surfaces of ice-sculpted granite.

Here’s one of the few lives I found thriving in this wilderness of rock.



It’s not that these flowers were so special, really, it’s that they were there at all. Read More →

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El Niño in charts: August 2015

An Atmospheric El Niño index surges into unprecedented warmth:

Michael Ventrice, a scientist with the Weather Channel, notes that the amplitude is most comparable to the epochal warming that went the El Niño of l982-l983. 

NOAA”s experimental precipitation outlook sees a good chance of rain in the South and Southwest.


And with the incredible warmth in the Pacific and eastern Pacific (along CA’s shores) comes an unprecedented three category four hurricanes churning across the equatorial ocean.   

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Scenes from an explosion/investigation: Fracking radioactivity sent to Oxnard/Pacific

Although it hasn’t been widely reported, the explosion at Santa Clara Waste Water Corporation (SCWWC) near Santa Paula last November came about a month after the Oxnard waste water treatment plant, which processes the waste water sent to it via a 14-mile pipeline from SCWW, noticed high levels of radioactivity in its sampling. Because the waste water after treatment ends up in the Pacific, this is not allowed by the federal Clean Water Act. Oxnard sent a cease and desist letter to SCWW.

After the explosion, the court investigators looked into this dispute. The writing — from the search warrant request dated 3/30/15 — is officious and dry, but the facts will drop your jaw. In short, according to its own people, Santa Clara Waste Water piped radioactivity from frack jobs to Oxnard: 

“SCWWC has an agreement entitled “Wastewater Conveyance and Treatment Services Agreement” entered into with Oxnard on July 15,2004 and covered a period of five years, expiring on July 15, 2009. The scope of services pursuant to the contract is, in part, as follows: The city agreed to accept and treat no more than 600,000 gallons of wastewater per day discharged by SCWWC into the city’s sewerage system in accordance with SCWWC’s Industrial Wastewater DIscharge Permit No. OC-8 or any future permit issued pursuant to provisions of Chapter 25 of the Oxnard City Code. The agreement required SCWWC to pay the City of Oxnard all fees pursuant to Ordinance 2632 pulus a fee of $.032 (3.2 cents) per barrel of wastewater discharges into the City’s sewerage system…[Oxnard wastewater specialist] Jeremy Grant said SCWWC paid the same rate per barrel that was initially set in l988. Grant did not know why the rate never increased.”

“The Indistrial Waste Discharge Permit is governed by 40 CFR 437.47 (the Clean Water Act). As part of the permit, SCWW is required to provide montlhy self-monitor reports. The reports must be certified. The reports were certified by Chuck Mundy and were provided monthly to Jeremy Grant.”

“On August 5, 2014, the City of Oxnard conducted semiannual sampling of its effluent discharge to be analyzed for radioactivity. The effluent sample was collected and sent to Weck Laboratories for analysis. A report from Weck Laboratories dated September 5, 2014 indicated a result of 94 pCI/L for Gross Beta [aka Potassium-40] which exceeded the maximum daily effluent limit of 50 pCi/L for the parameter. In respone to this violation, the City of Oxnard initiated an investigation to identify the source of the radioactivity. On September 24, 2014 City personnel collected a wastewater sample at the sample port on Wooley Road and Richmond Avenue. The sample results indicated a Gross Beta concentration of 4,400 pCI/L.” 

[Catch that? Santa Clara Waste Water was allowed to emit 50 picocuries per liter of radioactivity, and was emitting 4400. According to my calculator, that’s approximately 90x the legal limit.]

On October 15, 2014 [about a month before the explosion] a meeting was convened with Grant, Plant Superintendent Mike Wilson, and others to discuss the findings and come up with an action plan. On October 15, 2014 City staff collected additional samples of SCWW discharge. A sample taken at the port on Wooley Road near Richmond Avenue was determined to be 3000 pCi/L Bross Beta (exceeding the effluent limit of 50 pCi/L)….” [other samples were lower, but still mostly exceeding the legal limit].

On October 22, 2014, Grant delivered a cease and desist order to SCWWC and discussed their pending investigation of waste water discharges containing Gross Beta radiation. Bill Mitzel, Chief Executive Officer for Green Compass, accepted the order. The City also notified Chuck Mundy. Mundy said the discharge was from frack water from Vintage Oil. SCWWC did not deny the Gross Beta radiation was from their facility. 

[Note: By contract and by law, SCWW was not allowed to accept hazardous waste — including radioactivity.]

Here’s a picture of CEO Bill Mitzel, from a booking photo:



Mitzel faces five felony charges, including “impairment of the body of an employee in violation of the labor code,” and two misdeamenors, for a total of 17 felony counts and 5 misdemeanors.






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People of the PCT: Floyd Wick

I met Floyd Wick right about mile 1000. He was hiking south, heading towards Tuolumne Meadows, where his wife would meet him for a time on his way, from Burney Falls to Whitney, if memory serves. He said he had served twenty-six years in the military and his wife had served for twenty years in the diplomatic corps, and they figured they had done their duty, raised their kids, and now they were going to enjoy their retirement. And he was having fun coming down the trail, having (he indicated) already walked in this fashion from Wyoming to Washington.

Wick said he carried an eighteen-pound pack and tried to stay out no more than two or three days at a time if possible. I didn’t realize it talking to him but the day before he had come over what I like to call the Martian Pass, which is no small feat, but didn’t mention it and had no ill effects whatsoever.

Note the bear spray. This veteran is ready for anything.

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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…

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What part of me: Low

That fascinating band from Duluth, Low, has a new record coming out in a couple of weeks. Boy does it sound good:

Not much to see in the video, tho.

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Scenes from an explosion: Santa Clara Waste Water exec admits falsifying records

In the wake of the tanker truck explosion that set the Santa Clara Waste Water plant near Santa Paula on fire last November, causing a multi-million dollar disaster, not to mention many serious injuries, the Ventura County District Attorney presented 67 witnesses to the Grand Jury in building a massive case against SCWW. After the Grand Jury issued the indictment, and Judge David Hirsh unsealed it and fifteen search warrants, followed by arrests, included were records of the police interviews immediately after the explosion, fire, and toxic cloud of November 18th.

The records make for interesting reading.

The testimony is damning in the extreme in the case of vice-president Chuck Mundy. He admitted to falsifying records. He did not admit this in the first two interviews with police, claiming the plant handled only non-hazardous waste, even after a fire broke out under the boots of the firemen who came in the wake of the explosion, and even after investigators raided offices at Santa Clara and seized files. But when investigators came to Mundy’s house with a search warrant, he talked.

In testimony in the first of the search warrants, the special investigator Jeff Barry writes:

“During the execution of the search warrant at Mundy’s resident, he consented to a recorded interview with me, Supervising Investigator Frank Huber, and Special Agent Kristine Wilson of the Environmental Protection Agency. Mundy was not under arrest and was told he was free to leave. This was the third time I interviewed Mundy within a short period of time following the explosion.”

“Mundy admitted to falsifying and forging chemical analytical results and sending them to the City of Oxnard regarding waste product SCWWC sent to Oxnard’s Waste Treatment Center via a dedicated 14-mile pipeline. Mundy said he cut out lab results with acceptable numbers and then glued that piece of paper on the actual lab results for testing on waste (which had unacceptable numbers). The result was a forged and falsified document that did not represent the actual waste SCWWC was sending to Oxnard’s Waste Treatment Center and eventually the Pacific Ocean.”

Since that time, Mundy has hired a lawyer and no longer is talking to investigators. Twenty bags of evidence were removed from the site, including examples of forgery.

The District Attorney charged the company, its corporate parent, and seemingly the entire management team at Santa Clara Waste Water with felony crimes. But they threw the book at Mundy. He faces trial on 49 counts of 11 felony types, including “causing impairment to the body of an employee,” “handling of hazardous waste with reckless disregard for human life,” and “conspiracy to impede enforcement.”

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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.  Read More →

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Great Trees of the PCT: Twin Souls

An occasional feature.

Twin Souls

Twin Souls

Found these two at about mile 990.

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