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Big cleanup ahead in SCV

A recent tour of the Whittaker-Bermite site shows the decontamination in process

Posted: July 14, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: July 14, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Jose Diaz, senior project manager for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, points out the cells where excavated dirt is decontaminated by microrganisms on the Whittaker-Bermite site, where munitions and other explosives were tested up until the 1980s. Signal photo by Katharine Lotze.

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As the cleanup of nearly 1,000 acres of contaminated soil and the air above it continues in the heart of the Santa Clarita Valley, with much of the cleansing infrastructure in place, crews are now poised to implement its water decontamination plan.

At least 996 acres of contaminated soil and groundwater on the Whittaker-Bermite site targeted for cleanup are marked off in a grid and identified according to seven sections of concern, called operable units.

A tour of the site Thursday revealed cleanup crews — under the direction of Whittaker and monitored by state officials — have vigorously treated contaminated soil on most of the seven OU areas.

As well, crews have constructed a network of underground tubing that captures harmful gases. Scores of yellow pipe “monuments” are seen poking out of the ground, peppered throughout the site.

With soil and vapor cleanup infrastructure in place, state monitoring officials with the Department of Toxic Substances Control are preparing to put their water cleanup into effect.

The department revealed last week that cleanup is expected to “ramp up” once its recently unveiled seven-year Remedial Action Plan to clean up Whittaker-Bermite’s groundwater gets the green light.

All that stands in the way of an accelerated groundwater cleanup is approval of the plan’s technical details.

OU1: Decontaminated area

On Thursday, the Department’s project manager Jose Diaz overseeing the cleanup explained how soil and air are cleaned.

Operable Unit 1 was cleaned to the satisfaction of state officials in 2010.

Visible from a hilltop overlooking OU1 is a concrete pad, slightly longer and wider than a football field, sectioned off with waist-high concrete walls that form a grid. Inside the grid, contaminated soil is placed inside one of the concrete sections and treated.

On an adjacent hilltop, overlooking Saugus Speedway to the north, Diaz pointed to rows of dirt set into the hillside where shrubs had been ripped out and the remaining soil “scanned” for testing. This area is called OU4.

For more than half a century, businesses that manufactured, tested and exploded bombs, fireworks and dynamite on site used OU4 as their landfill, he said.

“These are the many canyons that weren’t used for anything really, except trash,” Diaz said.

A short drive south from the relatively innocuous OU4 area is the site’s most contaminated area — OU3.

OU3: Burn Valley

When Whittaker, or any of its predecessor explosive makers, wanted to test their product, they did so in Burn Valley, said Diaz.
“You can imagine these folks are dealing with explosive materials,” he said. “If something should happen, such as an explosion, you would not have a domino effect being here.”

Red marker flags dot areas along the road that skirts Burn Valley, marking the spots where cleanup crews found something that triggered the machines they used to detect unexploded ordinances. Each item detected was scrutinized and removed.

Two areas in Burn Valley — Areas 57 and 14 — are where the depleted uranium was removed two years ago. 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.

Once cleaned, Burn Valley could be used to accommodate a litany of “open space” options. But Diaz noted: “No house will ever be built on Burn Valley.”

To the west of OU3 is the area called OU2 which takes up much of the western edge of Whittaker-Bermite. From its highest point, the backyards of homes on Circle-J Ranch can be seen clearly.

OU2: VOC cleaner

OU2 has the distinction of having a fully functional VOC cleaning unit. Some Circle J residents have complained about its noise; when powered up during the tour it sounded like a loud air conditioning unit.

Fumes captured from soil on adjacent OU areas are piped into the VOC filter on OU2.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has paid particular attention to removing 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. Many believe they are carcinogenic.

Post-like protective yellow “monuments” built around VOC tubing dot the roadside exit from Whittaker-Bermite through OU5. Next to a rusting barn-sized former Whittaker building stand two fenced-off tanks used as part of the cleanup’s soil vapor extraction system.

OU5: Movie sets

The characteristic of OU5 is defined by its boarded-up buildings, many of them rusting and dilapidated.
One aging paint-peeling structure is marked “Hesperia Sugar Mill & Refinery,” and on a hilltop above it sits an adobe-brick hut used by filmmakers in an episode of “The Unit” TV series to depict a bomb-blasted Middle Eastern home.

“These structures here are primarily used for filming and a couple of the buildings are used for storing equipment,” Diaz said during the tour.

“If a building is sitting on an area that is going to be excavated, then the building will be torn down,” he said. “But there are not very many places where that will happen.

“These are areas that are targeted for excavation to different depths, depending on what we find with the sampling,” he said. “The soil will be taken to a treatment pad, where they’re going to treat the soil, and all that soil is going to be re-used on site.”

Units set aside solely for groundwater decontamination are marked on Diaz’s map as OU6 and OU7 — areas on the fast-track for cleanup now that the department’s water decontamination plan has gone through the public comment process.

Last month, the department gathered input from local residents responding to the groundwater plan. On June 30, public comment ended. Soon after, Whittaker-Bermite Multi-Jurisdictional Task Force members met for an information meeting at Santa Clarita City Hall.
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