On August 24th, 400 ninth-graders spent their first day at Irvine’s new $300 million Portola High School (PHS).  These kids, as well as their teachers and staff, are human subjects in a dangerous experiment, and they are not volunteers.  The experimentwill determine if locating a high school on a site that suffers from site-wide contamination with various carcinogenic and neurotoxic petrochemicals — such as benzene derivatives, naphthalene, and toluene —will produce adverse health effects.

It is true that most of the concentrations of these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) found so far on the school site have been at “low levels.”  However, huge quantities of naphthalene-contaminated soil, with an alarmingly high concentration was accidentally discovered on the school site while trenching along Irvine Boulevard.  Records obtained from a California Public Records Act request reveal that it wasn’t all removed, even after 78 truckloads of the contaminated soil were hauled away.

Finding such an enormous quantity of contaminated soil should have raised questions about the possibility that similar contamination is elsewhere on the 40-acre school site; but, the sad fact is that no one seemed to care.

The PHS site-contamination problem has a long history with many twists and turns, all involving hiding of information, spreading misinformation, and irresponsibly bad decisions by the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) Board and by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).

The PHS site is located on the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS El Toro), a federal Superfund site, which should have raised a special concern of likely contamination.  The airbase became operational in 1943 and was active through three major wars (WW II, and the Korean and Vietnam wars), when dumping of fuels, solvents and other toxins directly on the ground was standard operating procedure.

FivePoint Communities, the developer that purchased the entire airbase at auction from the Federal government, sold the PHS school site to the IUSD at the land’s highest residential value.  The site is located next to the main landfill for the airbase — a toxic-waste dump — and miles from where the majority of students are living.

It’s understandable, but not acceptable that the IUSD would do everything it could to justify its foolish purchase decision.  IUSD just kept doubling down with an extensive campaign to cover up any negative findings regarding the school site.  At each step, the DTSC was complicit.

In 2014, when the site boundaries were slightly shifted, 10 of 11 soil-gas test wells that were sunk around its perimeter showed low levels of various combinations of VOCs.  Since then, former Mayor and City Councilmember Larry Agran and
I have been pressing IUSD, the Governor’s office, CalEPA and the DTSC to require comprehensive testing of the school site interior.

Finally, on March 2, 2016, DTSC Director Barbara Lee, on behalf of the CalEPA, issued a remarkable set of orders, directing the IUSD to test the interior of the site, and also to engage the community in devising a work plan.  This collaboration with the community never happened.

Even more remarkable, two days later, a DTSC Division Chief sent an email to the IUSD telling officials that its March 2nd letter was not to be taken seriously.  So, grudgingly, and only after a resident uprising
at a turbulent public hearing on March 22nd, did the DTSC and the IUSD agree to sink 17 soil-gas test wells in the interior of the site — none of these under the buildings, since school construction had already been completed. 13c

That testing, completed in April, showed that all 17 soil-gas test wells had various combinations and concentrations of VOCs.

So, wouldn’t you think that those results would provoke a serious search for the sources of this dangerous contamination?  No!  A ridiculous excuse was cooked up to justify that no further testing would be done.  The explanation offered — with absolutely no supporting evidence — was that the contamination was caused by the Irvine Ranch Water District’s (IRWD) recycled irrigation water used when the site was a farm.  This absurd claim was easily disproven, and immediately refuted by the IRWD.

On July 28th,  Larry Agran and I flew to Sacramento to meet with CalEPA Deputy Secretary Grant Cope and others, to present the current situation and ask them to postpone the PHS opening and require comprehensive testing of the entire site, including under the buildings, by an independent environmental firm.  Only then can the highest concentrations of VOCs on the site be determined.

There has been no word back, yet, on what CalEPA and the  DTSC are willing to do, if anything.

It’s obvious that we cannot depend on State and local agencies to protect our kids.  The DTSC is notorious for not protecting the public, an example being the Exide Battery Recycling plant in Vernon that poured out toxic lead fumes for 30 years, poisoning thousands of nearby homes and residents, until it was finally shut down only by the U.S. Attorney General.  It’s up to the residents, especially those within the Portola High School attendance area to demand that their children not be involuntary subjects of this dangerous experiment.

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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