Portola High School, now under construction, is located on a 40-acre site known to be contaminated with benzene and other toxic and cancer-causing petrochemicals that have been discovered along its lengthy perimeter. According to public records, the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) and the City of Irvine learned of the toxic contamination in 2014, but have so far refused to heed calls to conduct soil-gas tests for these same toxic petrochemicals throughout the interior of the 40-acre school site before teachers, staff and students occupy the new high school this September.

At a recent meeting of concerned residents, a number of parents and grandparents voiced their concern that the Portola High School toxic contamination scandal in Irvine appears to be eerily similar to the early stages of the Flint, Michigan, lead-poisoning of thousands of kids — a scandal characterized by official incompetence, indifference, and intentional cover-ups.

For years, former Irvine Mayor and City Councilmember Larry Agran, as well as former Planning Commissioner Harvey H. Liss, Ph.D., pointed to federal and state guidelines and warned of the health and safety risks of building Irvine’s sixth high school on a contaminated Superfund site at the former El Toro Marine Corps Airbase, just 750 feet from a large military toxic waste dump, now capped. Moreover, Agran and Liss noted, the Portola High School site is located on land at the end of two runways, where toxic chemicals used in aircraft operations were apparently dumped directly into the soil. These practices began during World War II and continued throughout the Korean War, and at least into the early years of the Vietnam War.

For nearly five years — under pressure from major developers — top officials at the School District, the City of Irvine, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), and the California Department of Education have been rubber-stamping approvals to build Portola High School. In the process, they have ignored or dismissed resident concerns about toxic contamination as “fear tactics.”

Despite warnings, red flags, and the actual discovery of large quantities of toxic and carcinogenic petrochemicals — most alarmingly, benzene and benzene derivatives along the perimeter of the 40-acre Portola High School site — IUSD commenced construction of the high school in 2014 and has continued to build the $300 million facility, slated to open in September, 2016. The School District has ignored all calls for comprehensive soil-gas testing of the entire interior of the site — where teachers, staff and students will gather every day in school facilities to work and study.

This interior area — nearly 90 percent of the school site — remains untested for benzene and other toxic and carcinogenic petrochemicals that have been found along the site’s perimeter.

On August 31, 2015, former councilmember and mayor Larry Agran, wrote a detailed letter to Governor Jerry Brown, documenting the Portola High School toxics scandal — and the complete failure of oversight by the Irvine Unified School District, the City of Irvine, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the California Department of Education. Agran pointedly asked: “What are the chances — after having found large quantities of [toxic petrochemicals] present along the four-sided perimeter of the school site — that the entire untested interior of the 40-acre site, where thousands of future students, teachers and staff will be located in school facilities, would be free of toxic contamination? Most people would logically say ‘zero’ or close to it.”

“But,” Agran added, “the best way to definitively determine the nature and extent of toxic contamination at the Portola High School site is by appropriately testing for benzene and other dangerous petrochemicals, at a relatively small cost of $100,000.”

In November, 2014, following the accidental discovery of massive toxic contamination on the school site — along Irvine Boulevard — the City’s geotechnical consultant, David Richter, wrote a memo calling for renewed toxics testing. Richter’s memo was buried at City Hall.

Separately, thousands of anxious residents have called for toxics testing in a petition to the School Board and City Council. The petition has so far been ignored.

Asked about parallels to the Flint, Michigan, lead-poisoning of an entire city, Agran said, “While the failure of governmental oversight is similar, both locally and at the State level, there is one important difference: Here in Irvine we still have time to do the right thing. We can still conduct comprehensive soil-gas testing and evaluate the situation — before anyone gets hurt…before students and teachers and staff are needlessly exposed to toxic petrochemicals.”

Meanwhile, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has indicated that they are still “reviewing” the Irvine situation. Portola High School is scheduled to open in less than 200 days.

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

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