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A toxics expert for Bermite

Posted: October 13, 2008 10:12 p.m.
Updated: December 15, 2008 5:00 a.m.
An expert in toxic groundwater cleanups will mediate cost-related disputes that might arise during the continuing cleanup of the Whittaker-Bermite site.

Melih M. Ozbilgin, who headed a key water-planning committee for Los Angeles water agencies in 2007, is now the top cost watchdog for perchlorate cleanup at the former 996-acre munitions testing site in the heart of the Santa Clarita Valley.

Ozbilgin, who now works for Brown & Caldwell, a firm specializing in groundwater cleanup, could not be reached for comment Monday.

Castaic Lake Water Agency directors unanimously approved him as the right man for the job.

The need for a cost consultant stems from settlement talks reached in a recently litigated case between local water suppliers and Whittaker-Bermite, said Dan Masnada, the water agency's general manager.

"The cost consultant would arbitrate any disagreements that the property owners (the defendants in the litigation) and its insurers would have with costs that the water suppliers (the plaintiffs) would be submitting for reimbursement under the settlement agreement," Masnada stated in an e-mail Monday.

"This is simply a precaution in the event of disputes regarding covered costs," he wrote.

The Whittaker Corporation, through its insurers, is putting up the money that lets the water agency build pipelines and treatment facilities needed to rid the site of the toxic chemical perchlorate.

The cleanup is expected to continue for about another five years, a city planner said.

Finding the right person to mediate cost disputes was remarkable in itself, said Mauricio E. Guardado Jr., retail manager of the agency's Santa Clarita Water Division.

"We couldn't have asked for a closer hit," he said.

Companies involved in the cleanup that agree Ozbilgin is the right choice include: the local water agency;
the Whittaker Corporation responsible for the cleanup; its insurers, Remedial Financial Inc., Santa Clarita LLC and the American International Specialty Lines Insurance Company; local water retailers the Santa Clarita Water Division, Valencia Water Company and the Newhall County Water District.

This past summer, officials from each of the three water retailers met separately to name Ozbilgin to the post.

"It takes some time to find the appropriate person," Guardado said.

Before joining the team at Brown & Caldwell, Ozbilgin served as supervising hydrogeologist with James M. Montgomery Consulting Engineers Inc. based in Pasadena.

He holds degrees in civil engineering and a master's degree in community planning, all from the University of Rhode Island, and has worked on projects involving analytical and numerical modeling as well as hazardous waste site remediation.

He's analyzed groundwater flow through multi-layer aquifer systems similar to the groundwater setup at the Whittaker-Bermite site.

The decision to hire Ozbilgin had nothing to do with last month's $85 billion emergency loan to bail out the insurance company's parent company, AIG.

"We wanted to take a pro-active approach instead of a reactive one," he said.

Funding for the $300-million cleanup of Whittaker-Bermite was put in place by RFI and the insurance company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AIG, which found itself on the brink of bankruptcy last month.

The insurance company put up $225 million of the Bermite site cleanup money.

Whittaker-Bermite manufactured and tested munitions for decades on the Saugus property. Perchlorate is a rocket fuel by-product linked to human thyroid problems.

The Department of Toxic Substance Control remains the lead agency overseeing the Bermite cleanup.


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