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Cleanup continues at toxic property

Environment: End in sight for soil restoration; water cleanup could take decades

Posted: February 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 27, 2011 1:55 a.m.
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State officials will likely review the details of how engineers plan to complete Whittaker-Bermite’s surface cleanup this spring, as another potential developer has come along showing interest in the beleaguered, 996-acre property at the center
of the city.

The hilly plot represents one of the valley’s most coveted, yet polluted real estate properties.

For more than two decades, the site has undergone a massive environmental cleanup of its soil and groundwater, which are laced with toxic chemicals, the most prominent of which is perchlorate, a thyroid-damaging salt.

As the clock winds down on the city of Santa Clarita’s option to buy the property and city officials consider lifting a municipal ban on development of the site, a successful environmental cleanup of Whittaker-Bermite’s polluted areas is crucial, officials say.

In December, the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control approved the Remedial Action Plan for cleanup of most of the site’s “operating units” submitted by AMEC Geomatrix Consultants Inc., or AMEC, the engineering company coordinating the cleanup efforts.

Before engineers can put the cleanup plan into action, they must submit a nuts-and-bolts design of how they’ll clear toxins from the soil, according to Jose Diaz, senior project manager for the state department.

In addition to providing a detailed report on their cleanup plan, engineers need approval for each step of the restoration process from the Air Quality Management District, the State Water Resources Control Board and the U.S. Department of Fish and Game.

State engineers probably won’t review the more specific design plan until late April or May, he said.

Around that time, Diaz said, his department expects to receive a report from AMEC confirming that Whittaker-Bermite’s “operating unit 1” — the first to be cleaned — is completely rid of toxic chemicals.

Eliminating contaminated soil from the property could take anywhere from three to five years, while a groundwater cleanup “could take decades,” according to Diaz’ estimates.

But that won’t necessarily prevent development from taking place on the property in the interim, city officials say.

With a 10-month deadline set by the U.S. Federal Bankruptcy Court for the city, and potentially, Lewis Operating Corp. to buy a $13 million bank note on the property from its current owners, Remediation Financial Inc., the city is mulling the idea of integrating future development with the environmental cleanup.

Paul Brotzman, the city’s community development director, said conducting a soil cleanup on the property while laying the physical groundwork for on-site building is far more cost-effective than not.

Otherwise, future developers would be required to dig up and re-examine the same soil already cleared by environmental engineers, prolonging the development process and devouring taxpayer dollars, he said.

“If we can move quickly now, we’ll be in a much better position to do an efficient cleanup,” Brotzman said.

Lewis officials expressed their enthusiasm about the development possibilities the Whittaker-Bermite property affords, but are less open to taking on its burdens.

“We don’t want any liability for what’s happened in the past,” said Randall Lewis, executive vice president of Lewis Operating Corp. during a tour of the site this week.

But it’s probably one of the best properties left in Southern California, he added.

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