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Whittaker-Bermite radioactivity to be examined

Posted: July 24, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 24, 2012 2:00 a.m.

County watchdogs monitoring radioactivity for the Department of Public Health are expected to do an independent survey of the depleted uranium detected during the ongoing Whittaker-Bermite cleanup, a state report says.

In a report issued last week updating the cleanup of nearly 1,000 acres in the center of the Santa Clarita Valley, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control reported that public health officials specializing in radioactivity are expected to carry out an independent review of findings made during the cleanup that involve depleted uranium.

Health officials will be confirming the accuracy both of reports of removed uranium and surveys of existing uranium.

It’s not that the watchdogs distrust the findings reported by the toxic substances department, according to Jeff Day, who heads the Radiological Health Branch of the Public Health Department.

“We just want to make sure people are safe,” he said, adding that sending radiation experts to the site of any toxic cleanup is routine.

“When they’re all done, we’ll go in and do one-tenth of the job they’ve already done just to verify that they are reaching the same conclusions,” he said.

“For instance, we may want to check their hottest sites to see if there’s something they missed,” Day said, referring to sites that register significant amounts of radioactivity.

Depleted uranium is a key component in the manufacture of anti-tank missiles because of its ability to pierce metal, melt it and explode beyond the point of impact, Day said.

Several munitions companies over the years, and particularly during the Vietnam War, manufactured and tested weapons on what is now the Whittaker Bermite site.

According to the latest report by the toxic substances department, soil affected by depleted uranium at Whittaker-Bermite was removed from two particular areas identified as Areas 57 and 14.

Close to 1,000 acres of contaminated soil and groundwater targeted for cleanup are marked off in a grid and identified according to seven sections of concern, called operable units.

The cleanup of one of those sections, called Operable Unit 1, was completed in 2010.

In the next few weeks, the toxic substances department is expected to send Whittaker a thumbs-up approval notice for its report on the cleanup, carried out from 2005 to 2008.

At the moment, Whittaker is in the process of hiring contractors and obtaining grading permits for excavations that are expected to begin early next year, according to Jeanne Garcia, spokeswoman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, or DTSC.

Monitoring air quality

A particularly nasty section of the Whittaker-Bermite site is an area called Burn Valley.

Two areas in Burn Valley — Areas 57 and 14 in Operable Unit 3 — are where the depleted uranium was removed.

“It’s one of the worst areas on the site,” said Jose Diaz, DTSC senior project manager for the site.

“That’s the area, historically, where all the releases were made, including work with uranium as a metal penetrator.”

Construction of “soil vapor extraction systems” has been under way for several months, according to Garcia.

Two of those systems, she said, have been extracting harmful vapors for more than a month.

In monitoring vapors, the department paid particular attention to volatile organic compounds, commonly called VOCs, in Operable Units 2 through 6.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, VOCs are organic chemicals that have a high vapor pressure at ordinary, room-temperature conditions.

It’s this pressure that causes large numbers of its molecules to change from its liquid or solid forms directly into the air.

Many VOCs, according to the EPA, are dangerous to humans and harmful to the environment.

In its June report, the toxic substances department found VOC concentrations to be “relatively low” at Whittaker Bermite.

In addition, they were able to identify the most prevalent VOC as tetrachloroethene, a chlorocarbon commonly used for dry cleaning, which in the case of Whittaker Bermite was used by several manufacturers as “de-greaser” cleaning solvents.

From a health point of view, tetrachloroethene is a chemical that affects the central nervous system as a depressant.

Also, International Agency for Research on Cancer classifies tetrachloroethene as a Group 2A carcinogen, which means it is probably carcinogenic to humans.

Chasing The Plume

In addressing the issue of contaminated groundwater — particularly water contaminated with perchlorate — the report states that as of last month, about 37.6 million gallons of “impacted water” were treated and discharged.

Perchlorate is an inorganic chemical used in solid rocket propellant, fireworks and explosives.

It gets into drinking water typically as a result of environmental contamination from industries that use it.

Over the last 65 years, several industrial firms have manufactured and tested explosive material on what is now the Whittaker-Bermite site.

The Whittaker Corp. made ammunition rounds, boosters, flares, detonators, signal cartridges, glow plugs (used to heat the combustion chamber of diesel engines in cold conditions), tracer and pyrophoric pellets (fragments that spark spontaneously), igniters, ignition compositions, explosive bolts (designed to separate cleanly along a set fracture), powder charges, rocket motors, gas generators and missile parts.

Perchlorate has been shown to interfere with uptake of iodide by the thyroid gland and to thereby reduce the production of thyroid hormones, leading to adverse affects associated with inadequate hormone levels.

The concern for some local residents, including members of the environmental group Whittaker Bermite Citizens Advisory Group, is the spread of a perchlorate-contaminated plume in groundwater under the Santa Clarita Valley. About 50 percent of the water consumed in the valley is drawn from wells.

Diaz said his team is addressing the plume issue.

“At some point, even though you don’t know how far it (the plume) is going to go, you have to start a remedy,” Diaz said, “and try to prevent it from leaving the site.”

The process of extracting water and treating it — primarily in the 7th Operable Unit ——is expected to be a 30-year ongoing process of “operation and maintenance,” Diaz said.

“They’re looking for some way to get ahead of the plume,” said CAG Chairwoman Glo Donnelly.

“Once it (the plume) has gone past you, you have to put in more pumps,” she said. “You got to follow it.”



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