Leon Worden

Porta Bella: 30 to 40 ways to die

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, March 13, 2002

Remediation Financial is headquartered in this Phoenix high-rise. Photo 4-26-2014 by Leon Worden.
emediation Financial Inc., the Porta Bella people, sent me a curious fax last week. Curious, because the company says it has “historically not engaged in exchanges relating to items appearing in your paper,” and then proceeds to do just that— right before the Planning Commission is to rule on whether RFI has broken its promises to the city.
    “Dear Mr. Worden,” it begins, “We are writing in connection with your (column) of Feb. 6, 2002, entitled ‘Caravalho: Ambassador to Indonesia.’” It then offers to extend “accurate information to you.”
    No, RFI doesn’t address the city manager’s decision to leave for Southeast Asia a day after he skipped a deposition in a court case involving RFI. Rather, the letter discusses two topics: contaminants and phased development of the property.
    “The number of chemicals to be remediated,” RFI states, “is in the 30 to 40 range, not 275 as is constantly reported.”
    You know what? RFI is right. I was wrong.
    I’ve reported that there are 275 different chemicals contaminating the Porta Bella property and the groundwater beneath it. To my knowledge, it is correct that there are 275 different chemicals there. However, it seems only 30 or 40 of them are contaminants that might actually harm you. Shame on me. I’ll not make that mistake again.
    Frankly I think we focus too much on just one chemical: ammonium perchlorate. Sure, this inorganic chemical, used in rocket fuel and fireworks, is interesting because it causes thyroid problems, and the cleanup methods are still in the testing stage.
    But plenty of other nasty things at Porta Bella can kill you, too. All were used at one time or another when Bermite Powder Co. and its successor, Whittaker Corp., manufactured dynamite, fireworks, oil field explosives, flares and weapons there from 1934 to 1987.
    There’s trinitrotoluene, the stuff you heat to detonate TNT. There’s cyclonite, with more shattering power than trinitrotoluene. There’s lead azide, a primer for explosives that can blow up spontaneously. There’s red phosphorus, a powder used in rat poison and safety matches. There’s barium, a metal that can explode in air or water— and evidently did when a worker at a nearby recycling plant tried to hose down some volatile metal believed to have come from the Porta Bella site a few years ago. There’s trichloroethylene, a carcinogenic solvent, and tetrachloroethylene, which attacks the central nervous system. There’s more, like high levels of gamma radiation, and chromium 6, á la Erin Brockovich.
    “All of the above chemicals are hazardous to public health in uncontrolled quantities,” according to the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.
    RFI bought the Porta Bella property in January 1999 and has tried to duck its responsibility to clean it ever since. In fact, it started ducking that responsibility before it closed escrow.
    Under its agreement with the city, the property owner must clean the entire site before it can build any homes there. Nonetheless, RFI took out a $22.3 million purchase-money loan for the property and, according to the lender, said it would pay back the money by cleaning and selling off “phases” of the property to builders.
    Did city officials tell RFI, before the close of escrow, that the city would allow the property to be sold off and built in phases, in violation of City Council policy? That’s the $64,000 question, or rather the $100 million question. It’s what Mr. Caravalho might have shed some light on, the day he dodged his deposition.
    In its letter to me last week, RFI ignores the prohibition on phased development and says it would be an OK thing to do.
    “Phased development occurs only after environmental conditions in a particular (portion of the property) have been remediated and (DTSC) has provided its certification. This practice is safe and consistent with law, according to the DTSC, and goes on elsewhere in the state.”
    Talk about baffling BS.
    True, DTSC will authorize cleanup in phases. You clean one phase, then you clean the next. DTSC doesn’t certify anything as clean, though. The agency doesn’t like lawsuits. Rather, DTSC will call off its involvement when it’s satisfied.
    Never mind, of course, that RFI hasn’t cleaned a darned thing, or that DTSC is so dissatisfied with RFI that it found the company in violation of the court-enforceable agreement it signed to clean the property.
    And DTSC certainly doesn’t decide whether it’s OK to build in phases. Here’s what DTSC said in a 1998 report:
    “Although the site may be remediated in phases, all land use development decisions regarding the entire 996-acre site reside with the city of Santa Clarita.”
    City officials know all of this. In 1994 a city attorney wrote:
    “While DTSC is the responsible party for toxic issues generally, it is not omnipotent. DTSC does not have exhaustive resources with which to assure that every project it oversees is absolutely clean. Therefore, it seems that the city, which has the responsibility to protect the public health and safety, is well within its rights to require some (more) stringent requirements than DTSC might require.”
    The city hasn’t done that, but the 1996 development agreement prohibiting construction prior to full cleanup was a start.
    What has RFI done to comply with the development agreement? Nothing.
    Foremost, RFI was supposed to indemnify the city against liability in the event of toxic catastrophe, but it hasn’t. The development agreement states:
    “If (RFI obtains) insurance policies that cover the risk of liability arising from toxic or hazardous substances or materials on the project site or portion thereof, then the city shall be named as an additional insured on said policies.”
    RFI obtained an insurance policy, but it doesn’t name the city.
    RFI was supposed to “provide evidence to the satisfaction of the city of proper hazardous waste identification and remediation from (DTSC).”
    Instead, DTSC says it is going to the state attorney general because of RFI’s relentless stonewalling.
    As city Planning Director Jeff Lambert wrote to RFI in December, “(RFI has) not provided any evidence of good-faith compliance with the (development) agreement.”
    Indeed, RFI has provided all the evidence necessary to show it has no intention of doing so.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.

comments powered by Disqus