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Whittaker-Bermite cleanup at crawling pace

Cleanup of the Whittaker-Bermite site - a nearly 1,000-acre chunk of polluted land in the middle of Santa Clarita - is taking considerably longer than expected due to the complexity of the task, officials said.

Meantime, the clock is ticking on an insurance policy that is paying the lion's share of the cleanup. In 2004, a rough estimated cost for both the soil and the groundwater projects was $200 million.

"We cannot just be cowboys and run on our own," said Hassan Amini, geologist for the primary contractor handling the cleanup.
"There are parties that we need to bring ... up to speed. The review process takes time," Amini said.

The 996-acre brownfield was an operating munitions plant from the 1930s - when the Santa Clarita Valley was little more than a sleepy cow town with some remote industry - until it closed in 1987.

The original business was called the Bermite Powder Co., but in 1967 Whittaker Corp. bought the site and it was renamed Whittaker-Bermite.

During the 60 years or so the plant was in operation, contaminants seeped into the ground. Some made it into the Santa Clarita Valley's two aquifers, which provide drinking water to local residents. Pumping from all wells in contaminated areas has been halted.
But it wasn't until the late 1990s that a serious cleanup effort began under the supervision of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control.

A timeline set in 2003 has the entire site cleaned up by August 2010. But Amini said that timeline was unrealistic.

Although the property is now owned by another firm, Whittaker - through its insurer - is responsible for cleaning it up. Besides Whittaker's main contractor, AMEC Geomatrix Consultants Inc., are half a dozen to a dozen subcontractors involved with digging, extraction, testing and removing the toxins, said Jose Diaz, Department of Toxic Substances Control project manager for the site.

With the process taking so much longer than anticipated, Diaz said Whittaker's insurance could run out before the job is finished. He said the policy term expires later this decade.

Each step of the way during the cleanup process, Whittaker's insurer, AIG, must give approval, Diaz said.

"These are large plans, with a lot of money, and it all goes all the way to the top," he said.

Amini said each contractor produces a document detailing its game plan for a particular project that gets reviewed by the state department.

Meanwhile, he's "working the different angles" to secure funding, Amini said.

The process can take as few as two months from development to completion, he said. Other documents might take much longer.
An attorney for Whittaker said there should be no concern about the firm failing to clean up the site.

"Whittaker Corporation is, has always (been), and will continue to be responsible for the cleanup of its site," said general counsel Eric Lardiere. "Many, many, many millions of dollars have been spent already and we will continue to do so. How we do so is our business."

In order to approach the massive task of cleaning up the land and groundwater, Department of Toxic Substances Control officials - in conjunction with many other agencies - split up the surface area among six "operating units." A seventh "operating unit" encompasses contaminated groundwater.

Five of the six surface areas have yet to be completed. Diaz expects the action plan for these five portions to be released for public comment some time in June.

Lardiere said the most important and most expensive part of the project is the groundwater cleanup.

Castaic Lake Water Agency General Manager Dan Masnada said two wells, named Saugus 1 and Saugus 2, should open with a celebration this month.

Pumping water from those deep-aquifer wells will keep the contaminated groundwater plume from spreading.

The pumped water would then be treated and released into the Santa Clara River, where most of it will seep back into the groundwater, Masnada said.

(read online version)

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