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Cam Noltemeyer: Citizens need answers on Whittaker-Bermite costs

Environmentally Speaking

Posted: February 17, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: February 17, 2011 1:55 a.m.
 

If you are a new resident of the Santa Clarita Valley, you may not know about Whittaker-Bermite, a contaminated 996-acre site in the center of the city of Santa Clarita, south of Saugus Speedway on Soledad Canyon Road. The site is sometimes referred to as the hole in the donut, due to its centralized location in the SCV.

The state Department of Toxic Substances Control issued a cleanup order for Whittaker-Bermite in 1987, beginning efforts to remove the pollutants dumped there between the 1930s and the 1980s while it was a munitions manufacturing and testing site. The cleanup efforts are still continuing today.

Perchlorate is the main substance contaminating the site, but other pollutants are present, as well.

If you have lived here for some time, you may remember when the city approved the Porta Bella development on this site more than 15 years ago. After the city approved the development agreement, a group of concerned citizens filed a lawsuit.

They were concerned that only the least-contaminated portions of the property would be developed, leaving the very contaminated portions to continue to pollute our valley.

A condition called DS12 was part of the settlement of that lawsuit. DS12, originally imposed on the site by the city, was made permanent.

This condition mandated that the entire site must be cleaned up and cleared by the Department of Toxic Substance Control prior to any development.

Currently, the Whittaker-Bermite site is under an “imminent and substantial endangerment determination” and “remedial action order” issued by DTSC. This order requires Whittaker Corp. to pay the costs of the cleanup.

Why is this an issue now? Why should every taxpayer in the city of Santa Clarita be concerned about the past and current actions of the Santa Clarita City Council?

First, because in 1999, the city used eminent domain to take two parts of the Whittaker-Bermite site. In response, the owners of the property sued the city, and the city lost.

Why should you, the taxpayer, care?

The city must pay $25.3 million, which includes $5.3 in court-awarded attorneys’ fees. How has the city paid the $25.3 million? Part is from a $13 million borrowing that will cost the taxpayers $819,000 per year for 30 years.

How will the rest of the money be paid? What is the true cost to the taxpayers of this city? How much more interest and for how many years? Who are we paying it to? The taxpayers have a right to know.

The city appealed its loss, and as part of a settlement for that appeal, $20 million was credited toward the note that was a lien on the Whittaker property. The city obtained an exclusive one-year option to purchase the remaining $13 million lien against the property.

The City Council recently approved Lewis Operating Corp. and Shapell Industries as prospective business partners for the Whittaker-Bermite property. Shapell has since dropped out of the proposed deal.

Why should the taxpayers of the city of Santa Clarita care? Currently, the Whittaker Corp. is responsible for the cleanup through its insurance.

A Signal article titled, “Cleanup at crawling pace,” published in April, quoted Jose Diaz, who is the DTSC project manager on the Whittaker-Bermite site.

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

On the other hand, an attorney for the Whittaker Corp. said the firm is committed to cleaning up the property.

“Whittaker Corp. is, has always (been) and will continue to be responsible for the cleanup of its site,” Whittaker general counsel Eric Lardiere said last April. “Many, many, many millions of dollars have been spent already, and we will continue to do so.”

City officials say the first site on the property targeted for cleanup has been finished, but the DTSC has not yet signed off on it. Beside the remaining sites to be cleaned up, Whittaker-Bermite has also contaminated off-site water wells that will take years to clean up.

It has not yet been established that the off-site well cleanup will halt the spread of the perchlorate plume. Other chemicals, some that are carcinogenic, have been showing up in those off-site wells.

What is the liability to the taxpayers if the city becomes an owner of this contaminated property? What is the true cost of the $25.3 million to the taxpayers?

What happens if Whittaker Corp.’s insurance is depleted? Who will pay for the additional environmental review? Will the city honor the DS12 requirement?

Will there be more lawsuits? Will there be pressure to lessen the cleanup requirements to cut costs?

The taxpayers of this city deserve answers; they deserve transparency in the council’s actions. That is something I believe is currently lacking in our city government.

The city will hold an open house on this subject Feb. 23 beginning at 5 p.m., but it will take more than an open house to answer these questions.

If this issue is handled poorly, I believe it could bankrupt our city. We need a complete cleanup, not cover up on Whittaker-Bermite.

Cam Noltemeyer is a Santa Clarita resident and a board member of Santa Clarita Organization for Planning and the Environment. Her column reflects her own views, not necessarily those of The Signal.

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