Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

DTSC Uses Bacteria to Rid Whittaker-Bermite of Perchlorate
Saugus, California

[CA Dept. of Toxic Substances Control, 2013] — One of the nation's largest perchlorate cleanups is using a green approach to restore a large swath of property in Southern California.

From 1934 to 1987, the Whittaker-Bermite Corporation manufactured, stored and tested explosives on 996 acres now considered to be prime real estate in the city of Santa Clarita, north of Los Angeles. The explosives included ammunition rounds, flares, detonators, signal cartridges and pyrophoric pellets (fragments that spark spontaneously) and ignitors.

Perchlorate, one of the primary ingredients in explosives, contaminated the soil and the local water supply wells. The chemical affects the ability of the thyroid gland to take up iodine which is needed to make hormones that regulate many body functions after they are released into the blood. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, volatile organic compounds and depleted uranium were also found on the property.

Working with the responsible party, Whittaker Corp. the DTSC project manager approved a cleanup approach that encouraged the growth of perchlorate-eating bacteria. Mixing the soil with acetic acid, which is essentially vinegar and water, the soil was placed in large bags that were sealed to keep out oxygen. The soil was amended with other nutrients, along with the acetic acid prior to placing it in the bags. After proving it to be a viable treatment method, the process was refined and made more efficient by placing the amended soil in treatment cells rather than bags. As the bacteria grew it needed energy, energy it received by breaking down the perchlorate. The process destroyed the perchlorate without leaving any toxic or harmful by-products. Each batch of soil took four to six weeks to process from excavation to destruction of the perchlorate. With the new technology in place all that was left in the soil after the perchlorate treatment was chloride, which is an innocuous naturally occurring compound. By utilizing this method of cleanup, there was no need to transport soil to an off-site landfill.

The treatment method is not new to DTSC, said Project Manager Jose Diaz, but hadn't been used on a project with this amount of contaminated soil. The cleanup is considered one of the biggest perchlorate cleanups in the nation with about 394,000 cubic yards of soil on 226 acres. Accelerating the cleanup will allow the city to redevelop the property sooner.

Background: The Bermite Powder Co., and Halafax Explosives Co. before it, manufactured explosives, flares and small munitions in Saugus, on a roughly 1,000-acre parcel just southeast of Bouquet Junction, from 1935 to 1987.

Apparently the first on the scene was Jim "The Boilermaker" Jeffries, undefeated heavyweight champion of the world from 1899-1905. Jeffries took the helm of the L.A. Powder Co., which incorporated in 1915, and in 1917 set up a Saugus plant on the future Bermite property to manfacture gunpowder, in hopes of supplying the allied forces in World War I. By 1920 Jeffries was also drilling oil wells on the property; the success of either venture is unclear.

The week of April 22, 1935, Halafax opened a $250,000 plant financed by E.P. Halliburton, an Oklahoma oil tycoon whose eponymous company would grow into one of the biggest multinational oilfield service providers.

According to the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (2004), in 1939, Patrick Lizza established Golden State Fireworks on adjacent property, while Halafax manufactured fireworks at its site from 1936 to 1942.

Halafax eventually defaulted on its property taxes, and Lizza's company, as Bermite Powder, acquired the ex-Halafax land from the county, apparently for the price of the unpaid taxes.

Per DTSC, "The Bermite Powder Company produced detonators, fuzes, boosters, coated magnesium, and stabilized red phosphorus from 1942 to 1967. In addition, between 1942 and 1953 they produced flares, photoflash bombs for battlefield illumination, and other explosives."

Bermite and the Saugus property played an important role in the needs of the U.S. military during World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam conflict. For example, the most widely used air-to-air missile in the West, Raytheon's AIM-9 Sidewinder, started production in 1953 at China Lake and used a Hercules/Bermite MK-36 solid-fuel rocket engine that would have been tested and manufactured at the Saugus plant.

Bermite was a major employer and contributed to the development of Newhall in 1939 with a row of 50 2-bedroom bungalows along Walnut Street for factory workers. During and after World War II it was also a major employer of women.

In the postwar period, Bermite's subsidiary, Golden State Fireworks, was testing and manufacturing fireworks on the property.

Whittaker Corp. purchased Bermite Powder Co. and took over the property in 1967, operating it through 1987 as a munitions manufacturing, testing and storage facility. Among Whittaker-Bermite's products were ammunition rounds; detonators, fuzes and boosters; flares and signal cartridges; glow plugs, tracers and pyrophoric pellets; igniters, ignition compositions and explosive bolts; power charges; rocket motors and gas generators; and missile main charges.

The munitions and fireworks operations left more than 275 known contaminants behind, some of which percolated into the groundwater below the property.

Starting in about 1986, the operations would be exposed to steadly harsher environmental scrutiny over the next several years. "In 1987, the facility ceased all of its manufacturing, testing and storage of ordnance and explosive items," according to DTSC. Within another two years, plans were made for the area to be developed into a 2,911-unit residential community to be called Porta Bella, which was approved by the City Council but didn't come to fruition.

Whittaker sold the Saugus property to an Arizona investor group in 1999, just before Whittaker was acquired in a hostile takeover. The property spent the first decade of the 21st Century tied up in litigation, one result of which is a long-term toxic chemical cleanup project managed by the Santa Clarita Valley Water Agency.



Dumping? 1990


Cleanup 2013


Update 8-2017



Analysis of Perchlorate Contamination 12/2004

Fact Sheet 10/2004

Consent Order 6/2004

Public Participation Plan (with Maps) 5/2004


Un-Well Water: The Problem of Perchlorate

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