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Sewer Plant Is Raided in Probe

Seizures at the Santa Paula site are part of an investigation into a Colorado firm that operates the facility.

March 15, 2003|Holly J. Wolcott | Times Staff Writer

County and federal authorities raided Santa Paula's sewer plant this week, seizing documents, computer files and water samples as part of an investigation into possible criminal conduct by a Colorado company that operates wastewater facilities across the country.

Agents from the Ventura County district attorney's office and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday raided the plant on Corporation Street as part of an investigation into Englewood, Colo.-based Operations Management International.

"The entire scope of the investigation and potential charges have not been determined," said Deputy Dist. Atty. Eric Dobroth, an environmental protection specialist spearheading the local case. "It could take quite some time to review the evidence."

Operations Management, which runs 170 plants nationwide, including the site in Santa Paula and another in Fillmore, is being investigated for allegedly violating the terms of its federally issued discharging permit by dumping water that does not meet state and federal standards into the dry Santa Clara River.

In addition, according to a search warrant affidavit, the company allegedly filed false water-quality reports with state and federal officials and possibly engaged in wrongful record-keeping and reporting practices, city and county officials said. The record practice allegations involved Santa Paula and two Connecticut plants.

Susan Mays, a spokeswoman for Operations Management, said company officials were cooperating in the investigation and strongly believe there has been no wrongdoing.

"Our records of complying with applicable wastewater treatment rules and regulations is exemplary," Mays said.

The investigation came as a surprise to Santa Paula City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz, who said Friday he was unaware of any problems at the sewer plant until he saw the search warrant Wednesday.

"My sense, after reading the affidavit, is that these officials have probable cause to believe the company violated the terms of their permit," Bobkiewicz said.

Neither the city nor any of its employees is involved in the probe. Operations Management has run the city's wastewater treatment plant on contract since 1998 and employs five people at the Santa Paula and Fillmore facilities, Bobkiewicz said.

A single operations manager oversees both sites, but authorities declined to say whether he faced possible criminal prosecution along with the company. A search warrant also was served at the Fillmore plant, but only in an effort to seize records related to the Santa Paula site.

Problems at Santa Paula's wastewater treatment plant were uncovered late last year during a routine inspection by Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control officials, Dobroth said. Later inspections by state officials confirmed the problems, he said.

Any possible environmental effects will not be known for several weeks or months, officials said.

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