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Bermite sale nixed

SunCal will not buy nearly 1,000 acres

Posted: September 11, 2008 9:58 p.m.
Updated: November 13, 2008 5:00 a.m.
 
Developers shocked local officials when they announced Wednesday they would not purchase the contaminated 996-acre chunk of land in the middle of Santa Clarita.

Land developer SunCal Santa Clarita will not purchase the Whittaker-Bermite site in the city's core, even after it's cleaned up.

"SunCal Santa Clarita, partnered with Cherokee (Investment Partners), is no longer purchasing the Bermite site," SunCal spokesman Joe Aguirre said Thursday. "After putting up $20 million of advance capital and remediation, SunCal is disappointed by the decision of (Remediation Financial Inc.) to terminate the purchase agreement.

"We were very hopeful negotiations would have led to an agreement but unfortunately this is not the case."

Cherokee spokesman David O'Neill confirmed the jolting news.

"We were partners with SunCal on the project but the agreement to purchase was terminated," he said.

Site owners RFI/Avion did not return several calls for comment.

The inability to develop the site blocked construction of two cross-valley roads and leaves the groundwater contaminated.

Regardless of who ends up owning the land, 996 acres once contaminated with the chemicals used in the production of solid rocket fuel will be clean and sitting at the heart of Santa Clarita Valley.

Though SunCal's plans to buy the site were scuttled in the summer, city planners and local water officials learned of the news Wednesday at a quarterly City Hall meeting to update the group on the ongoing cleanup of perchlorate contaminating the 996-acre site.

Those who attended the multi-jurisdictional task force meeting Wednesday were treated to a colorful and convincing slide show by the engineers working to remove the harmful chemical from the site's soil and groundwater.

Representatives of SunCal and Cherokee did not attend the meeting.

According to Aguirre, SunCal asked for more time "to secure an approved cleanup plan from the state."

The lead agency in charge of the cleanup is the state's Department of Toxic Substances Control.

With SunCal and Cherokee now out of the current deal the city's central core is up for grabs.

Paul Brotzman, the city's director of community planning, said there are many options and many interested parties now re-assessing circumstances surrounding the Whittaker-Bermite site.

"It's not a completely clean slate," he said. "As for cutting it up and selling it off, that would mean a new subdivision in which case you would need approval from the city to subdivide. "They (RFI/Avion) could sell it as is. They could proceed under a new master plan."

Perchlorate is considered by some to be a carcinogen, it causes adverse effects in the thyroid glands of people, Amini said.

"It does take quite an effort and it's not a cheap process," said Hassan Amini, principal hydro-geologist for Geomatrix, the engineering firm hired by Whittaker Corporation to remove the harmful chemical. "We've been at it a very long time."

In the late 1950s and 1960s, right up until the Vietnam War, former land owners, Whittaker-Bermite, made munitions and exploded rocket fuel on the property which stretches along Soledad Canyon Road in Saugus and is bordered by Golden Valley Road in Canyon Country.

In the 1980s, it filed cleanup plans and in 1992, officials from the Department of Toxic Substances Control determined the company had omitted information from its reports.

About 1989, plans were made for the area to be developed into a 2,911-unit residential community to be called Porta Bella. Whittaker sold the Saugus property to RFI in 1999.

RFI filed for bankruptcy in July 2004, at which point cleanup responsibilities reverted to the previous owner, Whittaker.

Brotzman said all interested parties - planners who designed the approved Porta Bella Developments; Whittaker Corporation, responsible for the cleanup; current owner RFI; Avion which acts now as RFI's administrator; even SunCal which, with Cherokee, was about to present a new development package - are all still players.

When Amini gave his cleanup presentation Wednesday, representatives of the city, local water agencies and environmental groups were pleased.

"We're concerned about the health and safety issues and we want to make sure it would be cleaned up," said Cam Noltemeyer, spokeswoman for the Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment, adding that she was reassured by Amini's presentation.

Dan Masnada, general manager for the Castaic Lake Water Agency, called the meeting "thorough and comprehensive."

Efforts to remove perchlorate from groundwater is expected to be a more complicated and protracted process than removing it from the soil, Amini said.

When asked if the entire cleanup would be completed in five years, Amini said it was "not a bad" estimate.

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