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Well Testing Under Way

Officials Seek Extent of Perchlorate Pollution

Feb 15, 2003 | Los Angeles Daily News The Castaic Lake Water Agency began testing several contaminated wells Friday to determine the size and scope of the perchlorate plume that state officials believe stems from the defunct Bermite munitions factory.

Water officials will extract several hundred gallons from each of the four contaminated wells that pump the Saugus Aquifer to get a better sense of how far the pollution has spread and how best to clean it up.

"The data will allow us to begin to understand the plume," said senior engineer Michael Thompson, as workers began testing a well behind the KISS Self-Storage facility on San Fernando Road. "It's the first phase of cleanup."

The four wells, one owned by the Newhall County Water District, two by the Santa Clarita Water Co. and another by the Valencia Water Co., have been idle since 1997, when officials discovered that toxic levels of perchlorate made the water unfit to drink.

"We need to get those wells back on line as soon as possible," said Mary Lou Cotton, assistant to the general manager of the CLWA. "This community will need that water when the next drought comes."

A fifth well, shut down several months ago after tests revealed high levels of perchlorate, is not part of the study, but may be included later, Cotton said.

Perchlorate damages the thyroid and is risky for pregnant women, whose fetuses can be affected, according to the state Department of Health Services.

The work is part of an ongoing joint effort by the CLWA and the Army Corps of Engineers, and will cost the water agency at least $4.5 million. The study is expected to be completed in June, Cotton said.

The CLWA has sued Whittaker Corp., which operated the munitions factory until 1987, and the current owner of the 996-acre property in the center of Santa Clarita, Remediation Financial Inc., to recover the costs of the cleanup.

"We're keeping track of every penny we spend, and fully expect to be reimbursed," Cotton said. "Our ratepayers should not bear this burden."

Estimates peg the cost of the entire cleanup at $35 million, officials said.

The water pumped from the contaminated wells will be filtered through an ion exchange system to rid it of perchlorate before being dumped into the Santa Clara River and allowed to percolate back into the Saugus Aquifer, Cotton said.

Ion exchange systems have been successfully used in the San Gabriel Valley to rid groundwater of the toxin, and it is the only method that can produce drinking water from wells contaminated with perchlorate, according to state officials.

CLWA officials are also hopeful that the new data will help convince the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, the agency overseeing the cleanup, to institute a much larger pump-and-treat program that would restore the wells to general service, Cotton said.

DTSC officials have been reluctant to endorse the agency's plan for fear it would spread the pollution plume and make the problem worse, but recently began negotiating an agreement that would allow the plan to move forward.

"I think the DTSC is coming around, and we're expecting this new data to seal the deal," Cotton said. "We're very pleased things are moving forward."

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