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Cam Noltemeyer: $2.5M for contaminated open space?

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: May 6, 2009 8:27 p.m.
Updated: May 7, 2009 4:55 a.m.
This month the city of Santa Clarita may purchase its first piece of property with money generated from the Open Space Assessment passed in 2007.

City officials authorized this purchase of 140 acres, the Special Devices property, from Placerita Land and Farming Co. on Dec. 11, 2007, for $2.5 million.

But in order for the land to change hands, the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the state agency that oversees toxic cleanups in California, must first give its permission.

At the April 29 public hearing for the Special Devices property by the Department of Toxic Substances Control, the department stated water and soil cleanup would have limited effectiveness and is cost-prohibitive because of the large environmental impact.

Selling contaminated property for open space is the ideal solution for any large oil or chemical company.  They don’t have to clean up the mess and they actually get money for the land. Often they are happy to just give it away.

In the case of the Special Devices property, in Placerita Canyon near the Placerita Nature Center, the city’s offer must be a godsend.

Unlike the more than 1,000 acres in the Golden Valley project that the city could have purchased several years ago for around this same amount, the only flat areas on this property would have to be cleaned up before any construction could occur.

The other portions of the property are steep slopes with landslide hazards, with only the narrow and winding Placerita Canyon Road as access to an extreme fire hazard area. The property is virtually unbuildable — and where would they get water?

Although tests of the soil indicate limited contamination, the groundwater under several of the manufacturing areas still shows pollution readings well above drinking water standards, at least as of 2006, and therefore the DTSC has forbidden any use of groundwater.

No recent tests of either the soil or the groundwater have been conducted, probably because Special Devices is now in bankruptcy.  

Public water service to serve the project would require several million dollars’ worth of pipeline, and the county isn’t approving building permits based on trucked water anymore, yet another barrier to any development of the property.

So the argument that the city must acquire this property or someone will develop it really just doesn’t “hold any water,” as the saying goes.

Chemicals in the groundwater include several cancer-causing, volatile organic compounds and ammonium perchlorate, the rocket fuel component also found on the Whittiker -Bermite site.

What if these pollutants migrate off the site? Who would be responsible if the city owns the property? After observing the costs of the Whittiker-Bermite cleanup, we certainly wouldn’t want to see the public get stuck with that bill.

Continued monitoring to ensure that the pollution is not migrating offsite and polluting the wells of local homeowners should be a prerequisite for city ownership.

But who will pay for this continued monitoring?

It looks like the city would have to pick up the tab once again, since the current owner is in bankruptcy.

So the city is offering to pay $2.5 million to buy a piece of essentially unbuildable property for the privilege of incurring some pretty extensive potential liability. Who is benefiting from this deal?

Does SCOPE think this area should remain as open space? Yes, that is probably the best solution for the property.

But any acquisition by the city should require safeguards be put in place to limit future liability. Independent testing of both soil and water should be conducted to find out the current level of contamination and check the accuracy of the landowner’s disclosures.

(Our apologies for being so cynical, but we have seen all too many reports written by developers that are less than factually accurate.

We just don’t think the city should play that game any longer, especially in the face of the current economic downturn.)

A fund should be set up for continued monitoring of the groundwater pollution and some kind of assurance bond should be purchased to cover the cost of any potential off-site migration of the pollution into local residents’ well water.

All of these safeguards are feasible.

But between ensuring the public’s health and safety, guarding against future liability and the current downturn in real estate values, especially for raw land, we think the city needs to take a careful look at how it is spending taxpayer money.

Do we think $2.5 million is a good deal for Santa Clarita taxpayers? Heck, no.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment (SCOPE) board member and a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. “Environmentally Speaking” appears Thursdays in The Signal and rotates among local environmentalists.


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