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D.A. Launches Probe Into Digging Along River

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The district attorney’s office has launched a probe into possible environmental violations that occurred when the county allowed a contractor to dig up a sensitive area along the Ventura River, a prosecutor disclosed Wednesday.

In opening their case, local prosecutors join a growing list of state and federal agencies examining the activities of contractor Tom A. Staben, including citations against him for dumping debris into a Somis stream bed.

The FBI last month launched an investigation of the contractor after articles appeared in The Times on the dumping. Meanwhile, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and several other federal environmental agencies are probing Staben’s activities.

The district attorney’s investigation follows comments last week from county Public Works Director Art Goulet, who expressed doubt that prosecutors would ever bring charges against Staben.

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Later last week, Goulet said he had decided to investigate the allegations against the contractor and called on the district attorney to help.

“We’ve got an investigator assigned to see what Art Goulet’s got,” Michael Frawley, the deputy district attorney in charge of environmental cases, said Wednesday. “We’re actively trying to get information from him [Goulet]. If there’s criminal activity afoot, we’ll get to it as fast as we can.”

Staben could not be reached for comment.

The case has sparked an outcry from environmentalists, who say the county should not be doing business with contractors cited for polluting. The county has awarded Staben about $2.6 million in storm cleanup contracts this decade.

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Local investigators are working on two fronts, Frawley said.

They are looking into accusations that Staben dumped everything from dirt to refrigerators into a stream bed running through his Somis farm, risking clogged waterways and environmental damage. County officials have cited Staben for illegal dumping there three times since 1993.

Also, the district attorney’s office is examining a $994,000 road repair project the county hired Staben to complete this past winter. Federal regulators say Staben may have violated environmental law by removing tons of dirt from the Ventura River near Ojai without proper authorization. The county Public Works Agency is also under scrutiny for allowing him to do the digging.

The digging may have violated the Clean Water Act, which prohibits such construction in federal waterways without permission from regulators. The digging may also have violated endangered species laws because the river bed is used by migrating steelhead trout, regulators say.

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The accusations could bring criminal charges from federal prosecutors.

County public works officials say the digging was necessary because Staben could not find the soil he needed to repair a collapsed portion of Santa Ana Road. El Nino-driven storms, they say, left dirt and rocks at local quarries too damp. Digging from a dry portion of the river was the only choice, they said.

Federal regulators, however, say the county and Staben acted recklessly.

“They didn’t do the river any favors,” said Bruce Henderson, senior project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. “The whole point is, we don’t want people bulldozing to their heart’s content. This guy used the river for a source, but the river is not there for him to make cash.”

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Last week, county Supervisors John K. Flynn and Frank Schillo called for a new ordinance barring polluters from winning county contracts.

Goulet, meanwhile, said he welcomes the district attorney’s probe.

“I’m happy to hear the D.A. is assigning an investigator,” he said. “If we conclude we should pursue this, it will be very helpful to have the D.A.'s staff assisting us.”

Goulet, who was on leave because of health problems during the road repair project earlier this year, has questioned the decision to dig in the river. He has said his subordinates should have required Staben to get a Clean Water Act permit.

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“I’m not defending him [Staben] at all, I’m not backing him at all,” Goulet said Wednesday. “If he violated environmental law, I’m not defending him in connection with that.”

The district attorney’s office brought charges against Staben in 1990 for illegally operating a storage yard on property in Camarillo. Staben pleaded no contest. He was fined $3,570, placed on probation and ordered to halt the disposal of sewage at his properties in Somis and Camarillo.

One of Staben’s firms also faces criminal charges brought by the city of Ventura. Last month the city filed a criminal complaint against a firm he owns, the Ventura Beach RV Resort Inc.

City officials say Staben has piled a huge mound of dirt at the Ventura recreational vehicle park. The dirt threatens to alter the flow of water in a flood plain and compound soil erosion problems, according to city officials. A hearing on the issue is scheduled for next week.

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