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A blast from the past

Environment: Experts say removing munitions from the Whittaker-Bermite site could take another year

Posted: September 12, 2010 10:25 p.m.
Updated: September 13, 2010 4:55 a.m.
 

If something goes “boom” in the hills east of Railroad Avenue, do not be alarmed. It’s simply cleanup crews dismantling and removing unexploded munitions found on the Whittaker-Bermite site.

After more than 65 years of manufacturing firms lighting up the sky over the Santa Clarita Valley with explosives — from dynamite made in the 1930s to rocket fuel made in the ’80s — there’s a better-than-good chance a “live” ordinance is still out there waiting to be triggered.

And while accidental explosions have not been reported and no one has been hurt, specialized technicians with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, saddled with the task of overseeing the cleanup, say they can’t be too careful.
In short, the Whittaker-Bermite property — about 1,000 acres in the middle of Santa Clarita where everything from rockets to bombs were built for decades — remains a minefield of unknowns.

“We could be talking land mines because it’s in the scope of all the multiple munitions that were fired or prepared to be fired and, for whatever reason, did not fire and did not go off,” said Stewart Black, the department’s acting deputy director.

“Basically, we’re looking for duds,” he said.

Minefield of unknowns
This summer, the department opened its books on the cleanup of hazardous waste on the old Bermite property by making copies of its cleanup plan available to the public.

Black, working with explosive experts in his department, carried out an in-depth review of the Whittaker-Bermite lands and assessed the impact of “historic operations” carried out there since the Great Depression, trying to figure out what areas were most likely to contain unexploded munitions.

The team identified two  potentially hot areas in particular: one on the southeast corner of Bouquet Canyon Road and Railroad Avenue east of the T-intersection with Magic Mountain Parkway; and the other in the very center of the Whittaker-Bermite site.

“In general, an unexploded ordinance could be as simple as a flare. But, basically, it’s any piece of a munition that contains an energetic material,” said Roman Racca, the department’s explosives expert with an official title of engineering geologist and strategic advisor for ordnance.

Asked to explain “energetic material,” Racca said: “Something that could just go ‘boom.’”

Flares to missile parts
There’s a lot that could go boom on the Whittaker-Bermite site.

Dynamite was manufactured there in the mid-’30s by the Los Angeles Powder Company.

In 1936, the Halifax Explosives Company moved in and spent the next six years making fireworks.

After that, according to research conducted by the Toxic Substances Department, E.P. Halliburton Inc. reportedly began making oil field explosives at the site.

Coated magnesium flash flares and other photoflash devices used in the Vietnam War were manufactured by the Bermite Powder Company. Between 1942 and 1967, the company also made detonators, fuses and stabilized red phosphorous.

The Whittaker Corp. carried on the explosive tradition, making ammunition rounds, boosters, more flares, more 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.

“A fragment of these things could be a component that may or may not have the energetic material,” Black said. “So for that reason, the area is buttressed up pretty tight so that it’s safe.”

Things went quiet at the Whittaker-Bermite site in 1987 when the corporation stopped manufacturing and testing there.

No more explosions
Since then, the cleanup efforts have been focused on removing perchlorate from the soil and groundwater in the area.

Perchlorate — a byproduct in the manufacturing of solid rocket fuel — is considered by many to be a carcinogen, sometimes causing adverse health effects in the thyroid glands of people.

But finding unexploded ordinance on the site remains time-consuming, even though technology enables Black, Racca and their team to scan the area for specific compounds.

“For instance, we should be able to detect a magnesium flare if it’s out there,” Racca said.

“The bottom line is that we can’t let people go out there until it’s cleaned up and the public is safe,” Black said, adding he
anticipates the disarming of Whittaker-Bermite to take at least a year with various reviews, reports and meetings.

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