High & Dry surveys the legacy of human enterprise in the California desert. Together, writer/historian Christopher Langley and photographer Osceola Refetoff document human activity, past and present, in the context of future development.
The administrative building is long, compartmentalized, encapsulated by larger and smaller rooms now of indeterminate purpose. At its high point 400 workers have been employed here. All of the structure has been vandalized over the years, which gives the movie people free rein to adapt it to their needs. Some rooms have enormous gridded panes of glass in large windows illuminating the interiors in shabby grandness. Bathrooms with mirrors left in hanging shards, shattered commodes and impressionistic wall painting are bedaubed indiscriminately about.
Most startling are the movie squib stains (a small exploding firework used to simulate gunfire in movies) and bullet holes from one production or another. One room has a shoddy baby crib which seems ready for the “devil’s baby.” Lying on the floor there is a 4 by 8 foot piece of ravaged plywood that says “Dead inside.” It turns out it isn’t from “The Walking Dead.” The light comes into the various rooms through weathered windows that make the place look eerie and haunted. Ghosts of this landscape’s past incarnations hover about. Most atmospheric of all are the large sheets of torn, opaque plastic that contrive specters. Silently they gently sway in the breath of stale air that drifts in.
There are several mysteries in the life of this decimated landscape today. The biggest riddle remains: can a landscape be reawakened to new life?
This is a good place to rest through the hottest part of the afternoon waiting for what photographers think of as “magic” hour. With eyes closed, there is the renewed sense of the presence of the landscape’s many lives.
It is 1915, and the indigenous peoples and Spanish missionaries have given way to pioneer settlements and oil wells. There are also gold mines in the area since gold was discovered near here six years before the “49er” gold rush that begins at Sutter’s Mill.
Jim “Boilermaker” Jeffries arrives on the scene. He is an undefeated heavyweight champion of the world from 1899 to 1905. He takes the helm of The L.A. Powder Company, which starts there in 1906, first manufacturing fireworks. That quickly transmogrifies into gunpowder for the Allied Forces fighting in World War I. Jeffries is also drilling oil wells by 1920, but it is not clear how successful either venture is financially.
The Torrance Herald announces on November 29, 1934 that Halifax is going to build a munitions plant on site. It will be a $250,000 plant financed by Erle P. Halliburton, an Oklahoma oil tycoon. His company will become one of the biggest multi-national oilfield service providers. It will be a large job producer and once the second world war breaks out, it is perfectly positioned to start manufacturing a full menu of flares, fuses, and bombs.
This area takes on a new life, and a face is fashioned by the gravity constrained nature of the production line. Raw materials are warehoused at the highest point on the hills. The Torrance Herald reports, “From separate material storage to dry batch, thence to explosive mix, shell pack, and on to final pack house, through successive stages, the product is carried by gravity until it is delivered to the lowest point in the plant, the site of the magazine.” The paper also reports that because of challenges to the design of the industrial site, “The Halifax factory contains many plant methods and equipment new to the industry.”
The new Halifax plant comes on line on April 22, 1935. In 1939, Patrick Lizza establishes the Golden State Firework Company nearby, and when Halifax defaults on their tax payments, Lizza is there to gobble everything up for the tax money owed. This is in 1942 when the business is at the top of its profitability, or should have been. It becomes the Bermite Powder Company. The next year it wins an “E” award for productivity and worker safety.
More land is needed because of the war; it is made available inexpensively through tax-deeded lands. From 1942 to 1967 Bermite Powder Company produces detonators, fuses, boosters, coated magnesium, stabilized red phosphorus, flares and photoflash bombs for battlefield illumination. The most widely used air-to-air missile in the West, Raytheon’s AIM-9 Sidewinder starts production at China Lake and uses a Hercules/Bermite MK-36, solid-fuel rocket engine that will have been tested and manufactured at the Saugus plant. Bermite becomes a major developer of the town of Newhall, building bedroom bungalows for employees along Walnut Street.
All this time they are disposing waste from their manufacturing in what they think is an appropriate manner, choosing areas in which to dump potassium and magnesium perchlorate (from flares) and ammonium perchlorate (from solid rocket fuel). There are also industrial solvents such as trichloroethene (TCE) and tetrachloroethene (PERC) used for cleaning parts in manufacturing and operations.
Then it happens on August 27, 1969. There is a giant flash but no sound, which indicates magnesium is involved, at a disposal site. Kenneth Chow, 21, suffers third degree burns over 80 percent of his body and after a day succumbs. Nine other workers are injured. In a separate explosion the same day there is another fatality at the Northern Flare Company of Saugus. Someone reports seeing a spark before the accident. A dark angel is hovering over the area. It is a very bad day and perhaps an unremarked turning point for the munitions operation.
As the landscape’s munitions life begins to age, the face of Bermite also weathers and decays slowly year after year. Lives have a way of winding down so gradually at times it is almost imperceptible. They have been plagued over these years with accidental explosions, hazardous waste disposal and a deteriorating market.
Whittaker Corporation purchases Bermite in 1969. Slowly the country experiences an awakening environmental conscience.
The munitions and fireworks leave more than 275 known contaminants, some of which percolate into the groundwater below the property. By 1986 the operations are exposed to steadily closer environmental scrutiny. Operations cease in 1987 and the munitions plant is decommissioned. Immediately the city makes plans for a 2911-unit residential community called Porta Bella.
But the housing community is never to be because of the significant and mobile nature of perchlorates. Finally, scientists find the chemical to be damaging to human thyroid function. Positive testing results for perchlorates presence lead to the closure of several wells in Santa Clarita. So begins awareness of the poisoned life of the Whittaker Bermite Property. The property is sold in 1999 to a group of Arizona investors, just as Whittaker suffers a hostile takeover bid.
More than a decade of litigation follows but one outcome is the long-term chemical cleanup project managed by the Castaic Lake Water Agency.
Cleanup and dismantling of buildings begin. That is when the Santa Clarita LLC purchases the site for a planned mix-use development. When they default Whittaker is forced to take on the financial responsibility of the cleanup. The company insurance runs out in 2019, so that is now an end date in everyone’s mind.
The approach to cleaning up the landscape of perchlorate is multi-faceted. Wellhead treatment facilities are installed for the wells registering unhealthy amounts of perchlorate. As replacement wells are drilled, water services are in the process of bringing cleaned wells back on-line.
A pump and treatment system has been installed to capture and clean up contaminated groundwater. Eight extraction well clusters are installed to multiple depths along the western border of the site to capture contaminated groundwater as well as 24 performance-monitoring wells. More than 15,000 feet of piping are installed to convey poisoned water to the brand new, recently brought on-line Saugus Aquifer Treatment Plant. It is equipped to remove the site chemicals from this extracted groundwater. A pilot-scale permeable reactive zone is installed in subsurface along the northwestern boundary of the site near the Metrolink station.
The goal has never been to bring the life of this landscape back to the pristine condition before human habitation and engagement. The goal is to bring it back to match the needs presented by the goals for the site. It is to cleanup sites where past waste handling operations resulted in chemical releases to soil and groundwater that present unacceptable risk to human health. The plan includes two strategies: on-site vapor extraction to remove volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and levitation, and off site bioremediation of the soils impacted with perchlorate.
The contaminated soil is dug up and moved to where water and amendments are mixed with the soil and then placed in 67 treatment cells. The cells must be covered to keep out oxygen and promote natural soil microorganism (bacteria) growth. The perchlorate-eating bacteria require energy to grow. This comes from the biological break down of the perchlorate leaving the resulting chlorine in the soil to slowly dissipate. There must be and is appropriate monitoring of this progress in soil samples.
That process takes 20 to 30 days in warmer summer months, and 45 to 90 days during cooler winter months. After drying the soil, it is used to backfill excavation sites. The soil is required to be cleaned down to ten feet. An additional thirty feet is added so if developers dig deeper, the soil will be clean. Of course they will be hesitant so that they don’t become liable should more clean up be necessary.
That brings up the final nature and characteristics of the next life of this landscape once it has been given a clean bill of health. Time will tell the reason this landscape has been given a new lease on life. It could be for recreation, road construction connecting severed thoroughfares like Via Princessa, wildlife preserves, or whatever human creativity can dream, as long as it is within the remaining limitations of land use. Another possibility, considering it is used regularly as the film location is developing the area for a back lot for a studio location. Its location, varied landscapes and remaining buildings and film history suggest this is an idea with possibilities.
It is almost a Hollywood happy ending as Whittaker Bermite takes on still another, happier, cleaner, safer life. We hear many stories of lands turned to wastelands, or worse by over use, thoughtless use, and destructive chemicals abandoned behind. This one offers real, significant hope for a new wonderful life for Whittaker Bermite with careful thought, investigation and creative design as decisions are made.
Top Image: Building K – Whittaker-Bermite Site – Santa Clarita, CA – 2017 | Osceola Refetoff