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Builders, City Clash Over Hidden Threat

Santa Clarita: Cleanup of former weapons site remains explosive issue as suburbs creep closer.

September 12, 2002|RICHARD FAUSSET | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The owners of 1,000 undeveloped acres in the heart of fast-growing Santa Clarita once dreamed of blanketing the land with middle-class houses.

But after three years of clashing with city officials about how best to clean up the area, the developer, Santa Clarita LLC, is ready to unload it.

The site, like hundreds of others around the country, was once used to manufacture and test military-grade weapons. It is littered with contaminants, and there is a slight chance that those may include live shells and projectiles, state environmental officials say.

"People who have lived around here a long time can remember seeing the explosions there," said Jeffrey Lambert, Santa Clarita's planning director. "There's a real fear of what could be on that property."

As suburbs like Santa Clarita continue to encroach upon land previously used as munitions factories and military bases, officials say, more homeowners are likely to confront the possibility that weapons of war may be buried in their backyards.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, as part of a $5.5-million pilot program, this month is testing new cleanup methods in Santa Clarita that it hopes to use at the estimated 2,000 former U.S. military sites nationwide that may contain unexploded ammunition.

In Arlington, Texas, residents of a partly built subdivision have found numerous World War II-era practice bombs in their yards since August 2000. More than 100 residents are suing the developer, KB Home, saying they were not notified that the tract is on a former test site.

At Massachusetts Military Reservation on Cape Cod, residents received a scare in 2000 when nearly 1,000 pieces of buried ordnance were unearthed. Although inert, the material was 2,100 feet from an elementary school that had been built to accommodate a growing student population in the booming town of Sandwich.

Near Denver, plans for a 7,000-unit housing development on the former site of an Air Force bombing range are stalled as military officials struggle to clean up waste, possibly including unexploded munitions.

And this summer near Sacramento, the Corps of Engineers announced it must spend $200 million to clean up an unknown amount of ordnance on land that was once part of the Army's Camp Beale, a rural area that is seeing an increase in suburban development.

"When the military used these remote places for testing, nobody thought people would ever be living there," said Lenny Siegel, director of the Center for Public Environmental Oversight, a nonprofit group that specializes in base-closure issues. "People are just discovering the scope of the cleanup."

Deaths from stray military ordnance are rare but not unknown. In 1984, an artillery round killed two boys playing in a San Diego subdivision that had been a World War II firing range.

Even if undisturbed, munitions can leak toxic chemicals, contaminating ground water and, in some cases, making even the dirt around them explosive.

They also can ensnare communities in costly and complicated legal battles. Santa Clarita has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees for its contaminated site, and fallout from its disagreement with the developer has complicated the city's efforts to build new roads, approve a major auto mall and take control of a clean portion of the site where a Metrolink station is located. City officials are trying to wrest control of the land from the developer, using the power of eminent domain.

The city also believes a toxic byproduct of rocket fuel--ammonium perchlorate--is seeping from the land into the local aquifer. Though the developers say there is no proof that their site is responsible, four nearby water wells have been found to be contaminated and are closed. The Castaic Lake Water Agency, the local water purveyor, has sued the developer over the contamination.

This year, Congress allocated $70 million for the Army Corps' cleanup efforts, the most money ever, said the agency's Robert Lubbert. But Lubbert said it would take $14 billion to clean up all the sites in the nation. Other Defense Department estimates have put the total cost at $100 billion, according to a 2001 report from the General Accounting Office. Either way, Lubbert said, "It's just not happening fast enough....But hopefully we're funding [cleanup of] the most dangerous stuff first."

Though the Defense Department is responsible for cleaning up former military bases, it is typically not responsible for sites that were privately owned by independent defense contractors.

The Santa Clarita property is believed to be one of the largest examples of a contaminated, contractor-owned parcel, Lambert said. From 1934 to 1967, the vast, hilly land was home to a number of companies that made everything from dynamite to fireworks.

From 1967 to 1987, the Whittaker Corp. built and tested weapons there for the military, including armor-piercing 30-millimeter rounds containing depleted uranium, according to Ken Baez of the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

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