In November 2016, Hassan Amini, the project coordinator in charge of directing and coordinating the cleanup of the Whittaker-Bermite property, said the soil cleanup and decontamination would be complete by Sept. 28.
That obviously didn’t happen. Blame a bird and federal bureaucracy for the latest delay.
According to Amini and others interviewed for this story, the Whittaker Corporation was in the process of applying to renew a federal permit to clean soil in a dry streambed when a visitor to the site in September spotted two California gnatcatchers within the property, but not in the streambed area.
The gnatcatcher is an endangered species (the Audubon Field Guide blames housing developments for its endangered status), causing a quandary. Agencies need to be informed when an endangered species is present, but the birds were not interfering with the current areas being cleaned.
Acting cautiously, Amini reported the incident to the Army Corps of Engineers, which issues the permit, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the endangered species program under the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
The two agencies have 135 days to consult and issue an opinion. Amini estimates that means the agencies will inform him by the end of January.
Amini said this bureaucratic delay does not affect current areas being cleaned up, “but we are (almost) done with those,” he said. “If we do not clean additional areas we need to go to, we’ll be sitting on out hands, shutting down until they (ACE and USFWS) go through this. It’s really a disaster to our schedule and this project.”
The 996-acre Whittaker-Bermite site was used by the Department of Defense to manufacture munitions using a chemical called perchlorate that is harmful to humans. In rocketry’s early days, it was common to spread the excess perchlorate on the ground and let it evaporate – except too much of it seeped into the soil and groundwater, thus contaminating it.
The water decontamination is scheduled to start once the soil is cleaned and will last as long as 30 years. The soil cleanup has been going on for nine years, with various agencies often having said the completion is on schedule and then pushing back the completion date. Amini said this week that despite the Sept. 28 target completion date, he was shooting for the end of November. Now, that’s also unlikely.
Rick Drew, head of the Whittaker-Bermite Citizens Advisory Group, said this is just business as usual.
“It goes along with what I’ve been saying: three to five years,” Drew said. “We’re still three to five years (away). I’ve been involved with it 10 years now.”
Amini hopes that the two agencies will realize that this permit is not for developers but for the good of the community and issue the permit quickly.
“If I have the permit in my hand on Nov. 15, I should be done with the project within the January-February time frame,” he said. “I’m optimistic (but) I have no idea. It’s a hope, not a promise.”