A Bakersfield oil processing facility stands accused of spreading millions of gallons of hazardous waste over Kern County agricultural roads as a dust suppressant over a period of nearly three years.
Prior reports indicate the behavior could have been going on for at least 18 years, according to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control, DTSC, which has launched an investigation through its criminal division in conjunction with the Kern County District Attorney’s Office.
The facility, Las Palmas Oil and Dehydration, claims the oil products it makes are neither hazardous nor waste. The company has sued Kern County Environmental Health Services — which kicked off the investigatory process — saying the county caused millions of dollars of business losses through a rush to judgment.
An initial lawsuit and subsequent claim against the county are still pending. The company believes up to $60 million in damages have been caused by the county, although the number is just a rough estimate.
“I think it is an example that will, in final analysis, be viewed by somebody that looks at all of this as a horrific example of governmental abuse,” said Las Palmas lawyer Ralph Wegis. “We’re being targeted in a very discriminative and abusive way.”
Documents obtained by The Californian detail the investigations and subsequent fallout. Wegis said business at Las Palmas had been “frozen” following the state and county's actions.
Kern County officials did not respond to requests for comment.
DTSC also did not answer questions regarding its own investigation.
A UNIQUE COMPANY
Formerly Sabre Refining, Las Palmas first opened for business in 1994. Owned by former Sabre employee Michael Porter, President Bryan Porter oversees operations.
The company specializes in receiving certain types of oil byproducts known as off-specification oil, and converting the substance into a consumable product. Typically off-specification oil is a refined petroleum product that has been contaminated with physical or chemical impurities.
Las Palmas says it processes off-specification oil products into oil that can be sold to consumers, and a mixture of water, oil and solids that is used as dust oil emulsion. The company says that it does not accept “waste streams,” and claims to be the only facility in the state that dehydrates off-specification oil while not accepting hazardous waste.
Most of the oil products Las Palmas receives have been mixed with water, Wegis said.
In California, owners of unpaved, agricultural roads are required by the state to suppress dust that can be blown into the air by traffic.
The San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District said the most common suppressant was water. There are other types of emulsion products that can be used, the state said.
But when those products are legitimate, and when they can be classified as wastes, is not so simple.
THE FIRST COMPLAINT
In August 2017, Kern County Environmental Health Services received a complaint from a local television station alleging the dumping of oil on dirt roads belonging to Tracy Ranch, a family-owned farm near Buttonwillow, according to DTSC.
The complaint spurred an investigation by Environmental Health, which inspected Las Palmas in November of that year, a DTSC report said.
The report said Environmental Health cited “numerous violations including accepting, treating, storing and disposal of hazardous wastes.” Less than a week after its inspection, Environmental Health issued a cease-and-desist order to the company, directing them to cease applying the dust oil emulsion to the ground.
In a claim filed the following February, Las Palmas said a “conspiracy” of Kern County Public Health employees obtained the company’s private business records and called customers and suppliers, threatening civil and criminal action if they continued to do business with the oil processor.
In the claim, Las Palmas called the county’s action “malicious, oppressive, fraudulent and intending to interfere with the business relations of LPOD Inc., without any investigation into the outrageous and false accusations.”
The claim has since progressed into a lawsuit that is pending trial. The county has not filed any documents in Kern Superior Court directly addressing Las Palmas’ allegations.
The county brought in DTSC following the lawsuit. In April, officials with the state conducted an investigation of Las Palmas.
The department cited Las Palmas for four violations, saying that the company accepted hazardous waste for storage and treatment; generated hazardous waste and stored it at a point that is not authorized; and transported hazardous waste without completing a proper manifest on several occasions from 2016 to 2017, according to DTSC documents.
One of the violations related to Las Palmas’ use of its oil product as a dust suppressor. DTSC said the company placed 6.9 million gallons of used oil, gasoline and diesel contained in the emulsion on more than 100 miles of unpaved roads on Tracy Ranch in 1,882 instances from 2014 to 2017.
DTSC ordered the company to cease using the emulsions for dust suppressant and decontaminate the tanks in which it is stored.
Las Palmas, however, points to a second investigation being conducted by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board at roughly the same time.
The Water Quality Board had initiated the investigation after Las Palmas applied for a permit to use the emulsion on agricultural roads. An analysis completed by the Water Quality Control Board seemed to indicate the emulsion did not harm local water sources.
An environmental analysis found Las Palmas had been applying the emulsion to several sites across Kern County, and the company says the behavior has been going on for 20 years.
“Where it had been applied didn’t appear to have caused an impact,” said Supervising Engineer Doug Patteson. “But we were in the process of doing that permitting investigation when DTSC ruled that it was considered a hazardous waste.”
That stopped the Water Quality Board’s investigation in its tracks.
DIFFERING DEFINITIONS OF WASTE
Patteson said that typically dust emulsion products were either oil or water, sometimes with inorganic constituents added to make the dust bind to the particles. As long as the materials do not release components into surface water or groundwater, they are acceptable to the Water Quality Control Board.
Las Palmas claims that California’s overly technical definitions of oil waste led to the violations even though its products do not harm the environment.
“For statutory reasons (the Legislature) classified certain things — certain specific things — as waste, which is identical to the same thing that isn’t classified as waste,” Wegis said.
He gave the example of an oil product known as transmix, which comes from a pipeline that had been running a certain type of petroleum like diesel before switching to another like gasoline. The diesel and gasoline mixture that comes from the pipeline is classified as a hazardous waste, but the same mixture from another setting is not, Wegis said.
“The reasons for classifying it in that narrow band has to do with why the Legislature wanted to regulate pipeline companies in a specific way,” he said.
He said Las Palmas unknowingly accepted a diesel and gasoline mixture from a company that mislabeled the product as transmix. Las Palmas stored it in its interconnected tanks. By doing so, it contaminated the entire storage site.
When the state agency released the violations, Wegis said Las Palmas asked the company it received the mixture from to confirm it did not come from a pipeline. The company, he said, did confirm the product received by Las Palmas was not transmix.
A Las Palmas claim against the county says the county knowingly allowed Las Palmas to accept the hazardous waste from other companies, which resulted in the contamination of its tanks.
The cost of cleaning up those tanks is $12 million, Las Palmas says, which it claims it is owed by the county.
In addition to suing the county and filing a claim, Las Palmas has initiated litigation against the company it says illegally shipped the hazardous waste onto its property. The company has filed detailed responses to each of the DTSC violations, saying it is innocent of the charges.
The DA’s Office said it would not comment on an active investigation. The Kern County Counsel’s Office has not released documents relating to Environmental Heath’s investigation.
“What they’ve done is ganged up on us,” Wegis said. “We get immersed in the district attorney, the water board, the department of toxic substances. So once we get all that organized, we’ll be going to trial on several fronts.”