A massive Warner Center parcel that formerly housed a manufacturer of rocket engines that propelled American astronauts to the moon has been in escrow since April as the owner of the Mall of America has been trying to purchase the site.
The 47-acre parcel, owned by United Technologies Corp., is being marketed as a high-rise urban neighborhood, according to real estate data firm CoStar, and is expected to cost about $150 million. CoStar’s spokeswoman, Megan Sweat, said the sale is expected to close in early 2019.
Representatives for Triple Five Group Ltd., the owner of the Mall of America, did not have an immediate comment.
But state officials say it could take years and millions of dollars to clean up the property, which is polluted with cancer-causing chemicals, including trichloroethylene (TCE), tetrachloroethylene (PCE) and total petroleum hydrocarbons (TPH), left from decades of rocket testing.
“It all comes down to conditions of the site, in terms of geology and what kind of soils there are and whether groundwater moves easily or not,” said Arthur Heath, an environmental program manager at the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board. “Depending on the technology, it can take years to clean it up. You can’t clean it up in a day or year.”
Heath added that he didn’t know the exact cost of the cleanup but said it could range from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars.
Officials acknowledge the cleanup process is complicated because the toxins seeped into the soil and groundwater, at approximately 15 to 19 feet below the surface. Soil and groundwater cleanup activities are currently ongoing at the site, according to the Regional Board’s website.
“It’s going to be a long-term cleanup,” said Ana Townsend, a water resource control engineer with the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board, adding that her team is currently evaluating the vapor data submitted by the landowner as part of the cleanup plan.
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Developed in the mid-1950s, the property, near the 101 Freeway and bounded by Canoga Avenue, Vanowen Street, Owensmouth Avenue and Victory Boulevard, was used for machining, welding, metals plating, painting and engine assembly, according to the regional water quality board.
Between 1956 and 1960, one of the buildings at the corner of Owensmouth Avenue and Vanowen Street was occupied by Atomics International and housed two small nuclear reactors, known as L-47 and L-77, used for the Systems Nuclear Auxiliary Power, or SNAP, program which developed nuclear power systems for NASA, according to the U.S. Department of Energy website.
In 1960, Atomics International moved to another facility on De Soto Avenue in Canoga Park, and all radiological activities were transferred to the new site, the U.S. Department of Energy website said. Years later, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission confirmed that the reactor operating licenses for L-44 and L-77 were appropriately terminated by the Atomic Energy Commission. The Vanowen building was demolished in 2006.
Before United Technologies acquired the site in 2005, it was owned by the United State Air Force, Rockwell International and The Boeing Company. Numerous environmental investigations and cleanup activities have been conducted across the site since 1984 that have identified elevated levels of tetrachloroethylene, trichloroethylene and total petroleum hydrocarbons from historic manufacturing activities at the site, according to the Regional Board’s website.
In 2016, the former Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power plant, which once housed tens of thousands of scientists and engineers from across the San Fernando Valley, was razed. For several months in 2017, work crews removed nearly 8,900 tons of impacted soil with tracked excavators and deposited them off-site, according to the September letter.
But officials with the Regional Board said that the cleanup did not address remediation of elevated concentrations of toxins found above the groundwater, or in the vadose zone, soil vapor at the site, according to the document.
Meanwhile, experts say toxins found underneath the site can cause some serious health problems.
“Some of the chemicals such as tetrachloroethene and trichloroethane are known human carcinogens that damage the liver and kidney,” said Jill Johnston, an assistant professor of preventive medicine in the environmental health division of USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “If they are exposed to really high levels, people feel dizziness, headaches and can get respiratory irritation.”
Bonnie Klea, a West Hills resident and former worker at the Canoga Park facility, said she was not surprised when she heard about the pollutants found underneath the Canoga Park property. She worked for Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power plant, as a secretary in the early 1970s and experienced headaches every time she visited the site. Then in 1995, she was diagnosed with bladder cancer. Klea soon found out that she was one of many former Rocketdyne workers who were battling the deadly disease.
Nearly 878 cases were filed by former workers of the Canoga Park facility who suffered from cancer. About $55.5 million has been paid out, according to the United States Department of Labor’s website.
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Klea added that she was concerned about communities that live around the site.
“I am very hesitant about the development there,” she said. “I know what happened in the past and that’s’ awful.”
Jane Williams, the executive director of California Communities Against Toxics, said United Technologies, the landowner needs a long-term plan to remediate groundwater underneath the site to protect current and future residents who live nearby.
“The groundwater can take centuries to cleanup,” she said. “But development companies get in, develop, get their money and go home. They are not designed to do these long-term cleanups.”
But state officials say the polluted groundwater is “fairly deep” to put residents who live near the facility at risk.
“In order to be exposed to the contaminants in the groundwater or soil, you need to be able to breathe and touch them,” said Heath of the regional board. “In this case, the groundwater is at the point where — the contaminated part of it — no one is directly exposed to it.”
Over the years, the groundwater has traveled off-site and is now being remediated, Townsend said, adding that no drinking water wells have been impacted.
Earlier this year, United Technologies asked the Regional Board to begin tackling the soil vapor issues and install vapor mitigation systems beneath all future on-site buildings.
But before the landowner moves ahead with the process, the company needs to file a remedial plan by Jan. 20 with “feasible remedial technologies” to cleanup soil vapor, according to correspondence filed with the Regional Board. Townsend said once United Technologies completes the soil cleanup, the company may move on with developing the site even while the groundwater cleanup efforts are still underway.
“Once they get a closure — depending on what kind of closure they get — they can build even though they are remediating the groundwater.”