Leon Worden

Porta Bella facts still coming to light

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, November 11, 1998

hittaker Corp. agreed to pay a fine of nearly half a million dollars in April, when the California Environmental Protection Agency's Department of Toxic Substances Control determined that it had mishandled toxic and hazardous materials on the 996-acre Bermite property, known today as Porta Bella.

According to Sayareh "Sara" Amir, DTSC unit chief, Whittaker's alleged violations of hazardous waste control laws and the California Health and Safety Code included "illegal disposal of waste, illegal storage of hazardous waste and illegal dumping." Whittaker has agreed to pay $400,000.

Amir said the violations "occurred over a long time," before DTSC's investigation of the property started. DTSC signed an agreement to supervise the cleanup in November 1994 and the first survey crew began marking potential toxic sites in September 1995.

Amir said one investigation conceivably involving Whittaker is ongoing.

In July 1996, a worker was hospitalized with severe burns and puncture wounds sustained in an explosion at the Cal Coast Recycling facility in Canyon Country. Fire crews at the time speculated that the worker "must have run into something" while using an acetylene torch to separate metal refuse.

DTSC's Amir confirmed Monday that the department is investigating the incident at Cal Coast, and that it is the one ongoing investigation potentially involving Whittaker. Amir said Cal Coast, an affiliate of Santa Clarita Disposal Co., is one of the places Whittaker took volatile materials, although DTSC has yet to determine "if the explosion occurred because of Whittaker."

Immediately after the 1996 incident at Cal Coast, three employees were laid off, including Jill Klajic, who was between City Council terms.

Turn to 1998. Whittaker has announced the sale of the Bermite property to Porta Bella Acquisition Co. Inc., a company formed by the principals of Phoenix-based Remediation Financial.

In a Nov. 3 joint meeting of the City Council and Planning Commission, Jerry Swerdlow, vice president of the company, said Remediation Financial purchases properties that have toxic problems, finances their cleanup and repackages them. Swerdlow said his company has been involved in a project in Phoenix and none in California.

According to published news reports, Remediation Financial this year is developing a 27-acre parcel along Interstate 10 in Arizona that originally was an auto parts shredding operation owned by Charles Keating. Remediation Financial purchased it from the Resolution Trust Corp., cleaned it and plans to build restaurants, a hotel and a used car superstore on the site.

In the Nov. 3 meeting, Councilwoman Klajic asked Swerdlow if his company had any experience cleaning perchlorates, an inorganic chemical used in the manufacture of solid rocket fuel and other explosives, believed to harm the thyroid gland. Perchlorates permeate the Bermite property and have been found by DTSC to have migrated off-site into the Santa Clara River by way of Placerita Creek.

Swerdlow said his company had no experience treating perchlorates. Planning Commissioner Ralph Killmeyer noted there is "little comparison" between the cleanup of a 27-acre auto parts shredding facility and the Porta Bella problem.

In the meeting, Councilman Frank Ferry asked who bears the liability, once DTSC has certified the property, for any toxic or hazardous materials that DTSC or the city might have missed. Tom Cota, DTSC hazardous substances scientist, said he is not a lawyer and therefore did not have an answer.

However, the answer is found in a once-confidential 1994 letter to the City Council from a city attorney.

"While DTSC is the responsible agency for toxic issues generally, it is not omnipotent," the letter read. "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."

What Cota was able to tell the council and commission Nov. 3 is that techniques to detect trace particles of perchlorates in soil and water were only recently developed — in fact, the DTSC reports from 1995 and 1996 make no mention of perchlorates — but that the state has established an interim guideline of 18 parts perchlorate per billion parts of water as being safe.

Cota said perchlorates were detected on the Bermite property in concentrations as high as 370 parts per billion. He said unacceptable amounts of perchlorates were found in four drinking water wells to the west of the property and they have been shut. He said DTSC has not yet determined how deep or how wide the contamination has spread.

Cota said several studies have been initiated and private companies have been developing processes to clean perchlorates, but none has been approved by the state or federal EPA.

    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

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