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Chemical Levels Big Surprise

Perchlorate find at Bermite site astounds city officials

May 17, 2003 | Los Angeles Daily News Investigators have found levels of a toxic rocket fuel component as high as 58,000 parts per billion in the groundwater beneath the defunct Bermite munitions factory, according to state officials.

Santa Clarita leaders called the discovery of perchlorate on the far western edge of the hilly property "astonishing" and said it could complicate the cleanup and development of the 996-acre Saugus property near the Santa Clarita Metrolink Station on Soledad Canyon Road.

It is the highest concentration of perchlorate discovered to date at the former factory, where several companies filled orders from the U.S. military for everything from dynamite to missiles for several decades, officials said.

The data were taken from five 1,600-foot wells drilled last year by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers below an area known as Burn Valley, where munitions tests were conducted.

"We may have hit one of the sources of the pollution," said Sara Amir, the chief of the Southern California Cleanup Operations branch of the Department of Toxic Substances Control, which is overseeing the mapping effort.

Perchlorate has been shown to interfere with thyroid function and pose a danger to the development of infants in concentrations as low as 1 part per billion, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The Army Corps of Engineers is mapping the pollution plume in the Saugus Aquifer where five municipal wells have already been shut down. The $3.5 million effort was paid for by the federal government.

"We haven't yet found the leading edge of the plume," said Ken Baez, the DTSC project manager. "We're still learning how large this animal is."

Four municipal wells were shut down in 1997 after tests revealed the water contained as much as 45 parts per billion of perchlorate, while another was capped last year. The wells are about a mile away from Burn Valley, Baez said.

The tests also revealed that the water contained volatile organic chemicals and other toxins, Baez said.

While additional samples will be collected from the wells during the next month, initial results indicate that the plume is thinner than officials originally expected, but the toxin is more concentrated in the water, Baez said.

Tests in another area of the property revealed perchlorate more than 200 feet below the surface in concentrations as high as 6,000 parts per billion. That location was chosen for investigation because engines were once refurbished there, Baez said.

Local water agency officials and the DTSC are working to develop a plan to clean up the water via a pump-and-treat program that would restore the capped wells to service and slowly rid the Saugus Aquifer of the toxic chemical.

The DTSC is waiting for more data before approving such a treatment system, for fear pumping could spread the contamination, Baez said.

Santa Clarita Valley residents use a combination of groundwater and water imported from Northern California by the Castaic Lake Water Agency. In the event of a drought, residents would be forced to rely on water in the Saugus Aquifer.

While the California Department of Health Services requires that wells with more than 4 parts per billion of perchlorate be shut down, the state Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has found that water with as much as 6 parts per billion is safe to drink.

State law requires officials to begin enforcing a perchlorate standard for drinking water by Jan. 1. That progress is ongoing, officials said.

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