I frequently run into Irvine residents who are shocked to learn that Irvine’s $300 million Portola High School (PHS), opened this August, is located on a former Marine Corps airbase, closed in 1999, and a federal Superfund site contaminated with toxic chemicals.  The 40-acre PHS site was nevertheless released for construction from the Superfund listing several years ago.

Contrary to what has been frequently portrayed, federal release of Superfund property does not mean that the site was tested for contamination or is “safe.”

TOXIC CONTAMINATION LIKELY SITE-WIDE

Indeed, the limited round of soil-gas testing finally performed on the PHS site in March and April of this year — performed only under community pressure after the school was built — turned up toxic and carcinogenic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) in every one of the 17 test wells sunk, suggesting that the contamination is site-wide.  However, it is still unknown where the source or sources of this contamination are located.  And worse, because the sampling has been so limited, what remains still unknown are the maximum concentrations and quantities of VOCs that are surely elsewhere on the site.

Amazingly, the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) continues to refuse to perform further testing to find out where there are higher concentrations of VOCs.  They have justified their refusal by concocting a ridiculous and now-discredited claim that the contamination came from the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) recycled irrigation water when the school site was used for farming.  In fact, IRWD officials, defending the quality of their recycled water, immediately rejected that possibility.

And, in the irony of ironies, the PHS site is now being irrigated with IRWD’s recycled water!

The most likely source of the PHS site-wide contamination, and one supported by every former military person consulted, is that the 40-acre school site, located off the end of runways, was the random dumping ground for solvents used for aircraft engine cleaning, fuels, and an assortment of some of the worst toxic petrochemicals, such as benzene and benzene derivatives.

TOXIC, BUT “SAFE” — NOT A CHANCE

When locating a school, there should be zero presence of these extremely toxic chemicals, because of eventual vapor intrusion into classrooms and other school buildings.  Yet, IUSD, without any scientific basis, and without even knowing what the maximum on-site concentrations are, maintains that the school site is “safe.”

The American Petroleum Institute (API) produced a remarkable paper in 1948: API Toxicological Review  [http://www.hobsonbradley.com/articles/pdf/pdffile.pdf] based on 25 referenced studies, with an honest appraisal of benzene’s toxicity. It states:  “Conclusive proof is lacking, but the occurrence of delayed toxic effects appears likely”…“it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” … “There is no safe exposure level; even tiny amounts can cause harm.”  The US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) classifies benzene as a human carcinogen.

While refusing to do the responsible thing — conducting further testing — IUSD clings to the disproven notion that low levels of exposure to carcinogens are acceptable, with the complicity of the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).  To put the meaning of “low levels” into perspective, repeating an observation made in the July, 2016, issue of the ICNV, when air contains benzene in a so-called low-level concentration of one part per billion, an average breath takes in 12 trillion molecules of benzene.  This is where the cumulative carcinogenic effects begin to manifest in cancer cases that may not appear until years later.

Is Irvine becoming Flint, Michigan … in slow motion?

Harvey H. Liss

Harvey H. Liss

Harvey H. Liss, a former Irvine Planning Commissioner, holds a Ph.D. in Applied Mechanics and is a California Licensed Civil Engineer. Dr. Liss is a longtime resident of Woodbridge, the iconic Irvine village he helped design in the 1970s. He now reports for ICNV on environmental issues.
Harvey H. Liss