SCV Water files lawsuit against Whittaker Corporation

Signal file photo Empty dump trucks pull into a soil treatment area to pick up clean dirt as viewed on tour of the clen-up efforts of the Whittaker/Bermite site in Valencia in October 2016. Dan Watson/The Signal

SCV Water filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the Whittaker Corporation, seeking to cover the cost of removing two harmful contaminants — volatile organic compounds and perchlorate — from the Santa Clarita Valley groundwater basin.

The suit was filed in the U.S. Central District Court of California, comes ahead of just months ahead of when Whittaker claims it will be

-“Despite the recent news accounts and public relations charm campaign to depict the Whittaker site cleanup as ‘nearly complete,’ the legacy of their historic contamination of the community’s groundwater basin remains to be fully addressed,” said Matt Stone, general manager of SCV Water, in a prepared statement Thursday.

The suit comes six months ahead of the expected finish date Whittaker had given the community for the completion of its cleanup of 996 acres of once contaminated land in the heart of Santa Clarita.

“The mandates issued to Whittaker in previous settlements do not adequately address the continuing spread of perchlorate contamination, and do not require Whittaker to address VOCs at all,” Stone said in a prepared statement.

“It is Whittaker’s responsibility to reimburse the water providers and our community for the cost of replacement water, remediation, and additional groundwater treatment,” he said.

Eric G. Lardiere, senior vice president, secretary and general counsel for Whittaker Corporation, was reportedly out of state on business Thursday and not immediately available for comment, according to Whittaker officials. Lardiere has attended and participated in several of the quarterly stakeholder meetings held at Santa Clarita City Hall, and is expected to issue a comment.

Contaminated land

Nearly 1,000 acres of Whittaker-Bermite land became contaminated after more than a half-century of weapons and explosives testing at the 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-’67, the company also made detonators, fuses and stabilized red phosphorous.

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

The Whittaker site was used for munitions manufacturing up until 1987.

Today, Whittaker Corporation manufactures fluid control valves and control systems; fire and overheat detection products; radio frequency and high-temperature cable and cable systems.

The site itself was found to be contaminated with very high levels of ammonium perchlorate, as well as VOCs perchloroethylene and trichloroethylene.

The site continues to be subject to a cleanup order under the supervision of the State Department of Toxic Substances Control.

Last month, Jose Diaz, senior project manager for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, told stakeholders — including SCV Water officials — seated at a round table at City Hall that the cleanup would be completed by the year’s end.

Litigation history

Wednesday’s filing of the lawsuit was not the first time water providers have had to resort to litigation to compel Whittaker to clean up the damages its operations have caused in the community’s groundwater basin.

In 2000, SCV Water’s predecessors — the Castaic Lake Water Agency —  filed suit for reimbursement of response costs, replacement water purchase costs, ongoing wellhead treatment and well replacement.

In 2003, Federal Court Judge, the Honorable Howard Matz, issued a published opinion finding that Whittaker and others were liable under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Recovery Act for perchlorate contamination found in SCV water supply wells.

In 2007, Whittaker entered into a settlement agreement for the remediation or replacement of five production wells.

Currently, SCV Water operates two well treatment facilities — covering three impacted wells — which use a special resin designed to remove perchlorate molecules from the water.

Since that time, additional wells not included in the original settlement have been impacted by or threatened with perchlorate contamination, and VOCs have been detected at a number of wells, according to a news release issued by SCV Water on Thursday.

Additional treatment facilities and operations will be needed to address these.

‘Responsibilities’

Informal discussions with the Whittaker Corporation have not brought resolution, so the complaint was filed, according to the release.

“We regularly collect and test water samples from every well in our system,” said Jim Leserman, senior engineer with SCV Water. “Our efforts confirm that the drinking water being served in the SCV is safe, and meets all state and federal drinking water health standards, and it’s important that Whittaker continues to fund the ongoing efforts.”

Information on the status of the Whittaker Bermite contamination and clean-up can be found at the city of Santa Clarita’s informational page www.whittakerbermite.com.

“Whittaker should step up and cover the cost of this remediation,” added Stone. “Unfortunately, history suggests they will continue to stall in hopes of postponing or avoiding their responsibilities.”

jholt@signalscv.com

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