Toxic chemicals in the soil on the 996-acre former Whittaker-Bermite munitions manufacturing site in Saugus will be cleaned up on all but about 10-15 acres by the end of 2018, officials in charge of the massive project promised in their latest update.
The final months of one of the nation’s largest toxic waste cleanups come nearly three decades after perchlorate, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic hydrocarbons (or solvents) and depleted uranium were first discovered in the site’s soil and groundwater.
Perchlorate, a primary ingredient in explosives, contaminated the soil and the local water supply wells. The chemical affects the ability of the thyroid gland to take up iodine which is needed to make hormones that regulate many body functions after they are released into the blood.
Project managers from the California Department of Toxic Substance Control, GSI Environmental and SCV Water provided their latest progress reports on the cleanup process to the public at a hearing at City Hall also attended by about 15 members of the community on Wednesday.
Jose Diaz, Amalia Marreh, James Chow and Hassan Amini at the Whittaker-Bermite public hearing at City Hall on March 7, 2018. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
City Councilman Bob Kellar led the hearing, which included status presentations by Jose Diaz, the DTSC senior project manager in charge of the cleanup work by engineering-construction company CDM Smith; Hassan Amini, a toxic cleanup consultant with GSI Environmental; and Jim Leserman, senior engineer and project manager for SCV Water’s perchlorate remediation program.
Representing the city at the hearing were staffers James Chow (senior planner), Amalia Marreh (senior engineer), Shannon Pickett (senior engineer) and Dan March (engineering administrator).
Leserman and Keith Abercrombie represented SCV Water. Kris Hough and Sharon Bronson represented Sen. Scott Wilk (R-Santa Clarita) and Assemblyman Dante Acosta (R-Santa Clarita), respectively.
Rick Drew, Alan Ferdman, Jerry Noltemeyer, Cam Noltemeyer and Sally White represented the Whittaker-Bermite Citizen Action Group, which would host a separate project update session with officials a few hours later.
Other citizens in attendance included B.J. Atkins, EHI; Casey Feldser, 33 NDG; Blake Bonelli, Saugus Speedway;
Andrew Sevanian, a proxy for Hunt Braly of Poole & Shaffery; Lynne Plambeck, SCV Water; and Dan Masnada, former general manager of Castaic Lake Water Agency (SCV Water’s predecessor), as a private citizen.
Toxic soil and groundwater cleanup in progress at the Whittaker-Bermite site. Photo: City of Santa Clarita.
“DTSC continues to review progress reports on the excavation, soil treatment, groundwater monitoring, soil vapor extraction systems reports and monthly progress reports on the overall cleanup of the site,” Diaz said to open his presentation.
The property is roughly bordered by Soledad Canyon Road on the north, Golden Valley Road on the east, Railroad Avenue on the west and Circle J Ranch on the south.
“Out of the 996 acres, we estimate that about 40 acres had surface contamination that require(d) the soil excavations,” he said.
The project was broken down into seven “operable units” – six for areas of soil contamination and one for water – and used an ex sito bioremediation process to excavate, clean and return the uncontaminated soil.
“Out of those 40 acres, because of the solvents and residual contamination, we estimate between 10-15 acres will be restricted…they cannot be used for sensitive uses such as single-family homes, schools, hospitals or day-care centers,” Diaz said. “So you’re going to have a lot of unrestricted property at the end of the day that can be used for anything. Obviously, there are constraints, something that the DTSC doesn’t have jurisdiction on such as easements, terrain issues, earthquake faults and things like that.”
Responding to a question from Kellar, Diaz said the restricted acreage was “not a big area, just little spots on certain areas of the site,” and pointed some of them out on a map projected on the meeting room screen.
Toxic soil and groundwater cleanup equipment at the Whittaker-Bermite site. Photo: City of Santa Clarita.
Diaz explained that the soil in those spots was uncleanable due to the nature of the soil and the type of contamination.
“When we’re doing the evaluation of the top 100-foot column (of soil) and we have contaminants in there, if we cannot clean it up to that unrestricted land use level, that’s when you have restrictions on it,” he said.
Water Cleanup Progress
Cleaning all the perchlorate from adjacent groundwater may take longer than the end of 2018, but there’s been significant progress, according to Diaz.
“The other significant milestone I want to point out that is within that last two to three weeks, the Saugus Aquifer water treatment plant started operating pretty much in full mode,” he said. “It’s not up to 500 gallons per minute but we’re operating at about 130 gallons per minute, which is a pretty substantial treatment of the water.
“In the next couple of months we’ll be ramping up to higher volumes,” Diaz said. “That is important because as the system is designed, the extraction wells are placed in a way to prevent the plume of perchlorate from leaving the site.”
“It’s been a long, long time since investigations and evaluation of how water behaves and how contaminants behave on the property – close to 30 years since this started,” he said. “So it is a significant milestone and Hassan’s team has done a great job of getting that done to this point.”
Diaz said the water decontamination system will continue to operate after the soil decontamination is finished.
“We have baseline estimates of 30 years, but we can foresee because of groundwater conditions that sometimes some of the wells will not be pumped or other wells will be pumped more than others or additional wells may have to be added,” he said. “This will all be dependent on further 10 or five-year reviews. So we are hoping for the best, obviously.”
Kellar asked about water discharge, and Diaz said once the water is cleaned of perchlorates, it is discharged into the Santa Clara River, or returned to the site for re-use.
“They are trying to use as much of the water in the soil treatment system and the majority of the water will be discharged into the Santa Clara River until there’s infrastructure to be used on-site for irrigation or other uses,” he said.
Diaz said DTSC and the cleanup contractor were waiting for the Fish & Wildlife Agency to approve permits to clean up several small landfills on the property.
Until 1987, Whittaker routinely dumped trash like cardboard boxes and metal parts into small ravines in remote areas instead of trucking it to the public dump at Chiquita Canyon. Once permitted, those areas could be cleaned up in two and a half to three months, Diaz said.
But both Diaz and Amini chastised Fish & Wildlife for its slow approval process, which could bump Whittaker-Bermite cleanup completion into early 2019 if not approved soon.
“On Monday our team had a meeting with the Fish & Wildlife people,” Amini said. “To be honest I am not happy with their progress in reviewing our permit application. I’ve made no secret about that, and that I want them to move forward faster with our application and grant us the go-ahead to start this work. We need to do this in a dry season, during the summer.”
Hassan Amini at the Whittaker-Bermite public hearing at City Hall on March 7, 2018. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Some of the locations could be the site of some protected species, which is why Fish & Wildlife’s permit is needed.
“We want to make sure that when we move to correct something here that we don’t disturb another thing,” Amini said. “So were are carefully going through the survey and looking for the exact right season that we are not in the season of a nesting bird or flowering of the plants that need to be protected. Talk about competing priorities and regulations. But we will be done in less than three months.”
“So the next significant milestone is completion of those excavations, hopefully by the end of this year,” Diaz said. “With the soil excavations for treatment of perchlorate, the projected date of completion is the end of this year. This is all the excavations throughout the site.”
In his portion of the hearing, Amini displayed slides of the site showing contaminated areas and percentages of cleanup listed.
“All the green areas are areas where we have performed and successfully completed soil vapor extraction in those target areas,” he said. “The blue areas are where we are currently operating with soil vapor extraction units at those locations. Next to them is a designation of the area, then inside parentheses, we have percentages of completion of the soil extraction activity.”
Amini noted that the areas restricted from single-family homes, schools, hospitals or day-care facilities still had many other potential uses.
“They can be used for commercial, industrial, open space, you name it,” he said. “They’re not locations that we are putting a fence around and saying, ‘Stay back!’ They will still be part of this beautiful landscaping we have.”
It took half a century to create the problem, then roughly a decade to assess it, another decade to figure out what to do and how to pay for it, and the last decade or so to perform the task.
From 1934 to 1987, the Whittaker-Bermite Corporation manufactured, stored and tested a wide range of explosives at the Saugus facility. Among them were ammunition rounds; detonators, fuzes and boosters; flares and signal cartridges; glow plugs, tracers and pyrophoric pellets; igniters, ignition compositions and explosive bolts; power charges; rocket motors and gas generators; and missile main charges.
Whittaker-Bermite ended its munitions and fireworks operations in 1987, but more than 275 known contaminants were left behind, some of which percolated into the groundwater below the property.
An aerial view of soil excavation and treatment in progress at the Whittaker-Bermite site just west of Golden Valley Road in April 2008. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
In 1995, Plans were made for the area to be developed into a 2,911-unit residential community to be called Porta Bella, which was approved by the City Council but didn’t come to fruition.
The Specific Plan for the property will remain in place indefinitely until it is amended or replaced by another entitlement granted by the City Council in the future, most likely to be proposed prior to redevelopment of the site.
Simi Valley-based Whittaker sold the Saugus property to an Arizona investor group in 1999, just before Whittaker was acquired in a hostile takeover.
The property spent the first decade of the 21st Century tied up in litigation. One result was this nearly complete toxic chemical cleanup project, managed by the Castaic Lake Water Agency (and now SCV Water) with Whittaker and it successors financially responsible. Another was Whittaker successfully winning the right to bill the federal government for cleanup costs.
An aerial view of the Whittaker-Bermite site looking west in April 2008. Photo: Stephen K. Peeples.
Meanwhile, the entire parcel — nicknamed “the donut hole” by Santa Clarita Valley residents — has remained undeveloped for more than 30 years (with the exception of the Metrolink train station and parking lot). Its future remains undetermined, but not without a plan.
“There is going to be a Soils Management Plan to deal with any contamination that was not previously discovered, so we will have a process for dealing with anything we may find in the future,” he said.
Asked what level of satisfaction he had that all the contaminated spots on the property had been found, Diaz said, “Pretty high — 90 to 95 percent.”
For complete Whittaker-Bermite cleanup history and documentation, visit the Whittaker-Bermite page on the DTSC website.