By Jim Holt
Senior Investigative Reporter
As the cleanup of close to 1,000 acres of contaminated soil and water at Whittaker-Bermite comes to a close, and while lawyers in bankruptcy court hundreds of miles from the site slice through litigation so that one day stores or homes can be built there, the land itself is reverting to the way it was long before the dynamite makers made a mess of it, where the deer — if not the antelope — and other critters play, marking a robust return of wildlife.
“We’ve had deer making regular visits and, in fact, all kinds of wildlife at the site,” said Hassan Amini, project manager with the cleanup firm Amec Foster Wheeler, who earlier this year proudly informed state officials that soil remediation was complete and the cleanup of groundwater ongoing to the tune of hundreds of thousands of gallons of treated water being discharged back into the Santa Clara River.
In February, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control overseeing the cleanup released its hold on the property for $1.4 million — a major milestone in the decades-long cleanup of land that had been used for explosives manufacturing from 1934-87.
Now, the focus is on court cases launched over liens placed on the property by creditors seeking to be paid and with the city of Santa Clarita for allegedly breaching an agreement that would allow the land to be developed.
And while legal wrangling over liens is time-consuming, the real roadblock to development is the city, says the property owner, who contends that if that barrier was removed, shovels could go into the ground a year from now.
“It’s shocking to me that the city — instead of contracting to get this done — is not doing that,” said David Lunn, CEO of Remedial Financial Inc., which owns Santa Clarita LLC, owner of the 996-acre property, near the geographic center of the city, south of Soledad Canyon Road.
“With the amount of tax revenue this would bring in, I’m baffled,” Lunn said Monday.
In October, the city was issued a notice of default alleging it wasn’t living up to a deal to allow development on the property.
City officials would not comment, citing pending litigation, said spokeswoman Carrie Lujan.
And, as for the contested liens, Lunn said there’s enough money in its deal with Prologis Inc., the giant real estate firm based in San Francisco, to pay all creditors.
Santa Clarita LLC remains committed, he said, to building a “mixed” community of homes and “light industry” businesses, according to the 25-year-old Porta Bella plan.
In November, Santa Clarita LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, listing assets of up to $1 billion and debts ranging from $100 million to $500 million, so that it could sell the property to Prologis Inc., and, at the same time, pay its creditors.
One firm seeking compensation is Blue Ox Holdings LLC, which filed its claim in December. Court papers show Blue Ox claims it is owed, “among other things,” more than $1.9 million in brokerage fees.
After meeting a dozen times inside a bankruptcy court in Arizona, one of the lawyers is reporting light at the end of the tunnel.
“The court asked us to work it out between ourselves, so we’re going to start that process,” attorney Christopher Bailey, representing Santa Clarita LLC, told The Signal last week. “Both parties have agreed to set a schedule to begin exchanging documents back and forth.”
On May 12, a judge for the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Arizona told both sides to exchange all relevant “discovery” documents with each other by Oct. 18.
Messages left for Blue Ox lawyers to comment on the latest court ruling have not yet been returned.
Asked how soon he expects to sell the property, Bailey said: “It’s kind of an ongoing process.”
In the meantime, the site that’s been off limits to the people of Santa Clarita these past 20 years shows signs of life and a return to the natural state it enjoyed long before companies began making dynamite and explosives there, dumping the burned wares down hillsides.
A year ago, cleanup crews grading and churning up the land began “hydroseeding” and replacing 54,000 cubic yards of soil removed from the site. Hydroseeding is a way of planting seeds by mixing them with mulch in a smoothie-like solution.
Jose Diaz, who has overseen the cleanup for the Department of Toxic Substances, describes the next chapter in the life of Whittaker-Bermite as “long-term care.”
Last week, he and other principal cleanup players were scheduled to meet at City Hall as they’ve done quarterly for the past couple of years. That meeting was canceled.
Lujan said the meeting was canceled “because there was not news to report.”
Nevertheless, Diaz — as he’s done routinely after each multi-jurisdictional meeting — met with the Whittaker-Bermite Citizens’ Advisory Committee, a group concerned about the environmental impacts of Whittaker-Bermite since the cleanup began. This time, however, the meeting was on Zoom.
He assured CAG members that the DTSC is “still engaged” and is monitoring the site’s “operation and maintenance” moving forward.
“The soil remediation already got a complete report,” he told The Signal. “In order to complete the process, the owner has to record its land-use covenant.”
DTSC must, according to state law, notify the planning and building department about any recorded land use restriction.
City officials are waiting for the land use covenant since it will identify “land use restrictions on those areas of the subject site with residual soil contamination,” Lujan said, noting they expect the covenant by November.
With regards to the site’s perchlorate-tainted groundwater — the final cleanup stage — Diaz said property owners are expected to submit a separate “operation and maintenance” plan for the ongoing assessment of water quality. Once used as a medication to treat overactive thyroid glands, perchlorate can impair the function of normal and underactive thyroids.
“Every five years, they’ve got to do an evaluation on how things are running,” said Diaz. “Monitoring is about long-term care for the water.”
At the moment, the Saugus Aquifer Treatment Plant next to the Metrolink station on Soledad Canyon Road cleans about 150 gallons of groundwater every minute, discharging the treated water into the Santa Clara River watershed.
Also included in the “operation and maintenance” plan for water is a cost estimate per year for at least the next 30 years.
“They have to figure out how much it will cost to maintain that system,” Diaz said. “They have to provide a mechanism for how they’re going to secure that funding, for example issuing bonds or setting up an escrow account.”
That way, if the property deals all go south, he said, state officials can “tap into that money” to ensure the safe operation of the water treatment equipment.
Signs of life
On a visit to the site last week, a dry rock-stew creek bed that snakes its way into Placerita Canyon from the hills next to Circle J Ranch was lined with hearty green tropical horseweed and hoaryleaf, and the adjacent hills dotted with yucca and Thickleaf Yerba Santa shrubs.
A dirt road shadowing the creek bed from the hills to a wire fence ridged with barbed wire appeared well-traveled, despite a rusting sign warning visitors: “HAZARDOUS WASTE AREA — UNAUTHORIZED PERSONNEL KEEP OUT.”
A section of the same fence trampled to the ground next to the warning told a defiant story of frequent visitors to the site, as evidenced by footprints, horse prints and bicycle tire marks leading onto the property.
Gone are the bulldozers and dump trucks pushing and hauling contaminated soil, churning and then seeding. The packed dirt roads they used still crisscross the site, with working names such as Phosphorous Road and Fireworks Road.
Whether the roads will be renamed or whether the roads themselves will serve stores or homes remains to be seen. Whether developers dust off blueprints for Porta Bella — the site’s only specific plan — is something property owners are pursuing with prospective buyers as they chase federal grant money to pay for the infrastructure needed. Porta Bella called for a civic center interface, community park and links to Golden Valley Road.
Today, the site is not off limits to the crows and hawks familiar with the rest of Santa Clarita.
A couple of years ago, biologists monitoring the cleanup found a nest built by the threatened California gnatcatcher, prompting the shutdown of bulldozers and trucks at the site. The gnatcatcher has since moved on, while many other non-threatened birds have moved in.
“The birds set us back in terms of scheduling but they have since moved from their nesting habitat. With all the (wild)fires, many of the birds have scattered,” Amini said, noting state wildlife officials continually monitor the site.
For the people of Santa Clarita, the land is in limbo. For the valley’s indigenous plants and animals, it’s home.