Leslie and Roger Sievers, who moved from the San Francisco Bay area to Irvine in 2013, had local experience with toxic contamination on military airbases. Roger Sievers wrote to the IUSD Board and Superintendent Walker on September 8th expressing his concern that School District officials do not seem to be taking the issue of toxic contamination on the Portola High School site seriously. He wrote:

“I wanted to express my serious concern regarding the lack of, or incomplete toxic testing that has occurred at the Portola High School construction site. Leslie and I recently moved to Irvine from the San Francisco Bay Area and have first-hand experience with toxic military sites [where] major health issues ensued.

“At Hamilton AFB in Marin County, residential housing was completed in the 1980s and a number of cancer clusters developed …. In Santa Clara County, housing was built on a Superfund site near Moffett NAS and illnesses and cancers are continuing to occur to this day….

“Guantanamo Bay lawyers have been forced to live in housing on the base at the end of a former runway. The Miami Herald reported in July that it has found nine individuals who were diagnosed with cancer of the brain, appendix, colon and lymph nodes…

“…The tradeoff of cost to remediate vs. the cost to settle litigation after illness occurs should compel officials to move forward with testing and to remediate if needed…”

IUSD Response

Ms. Annie Brown, IUSD Public Information Officer, responded on September 11th with what I call “happy talk” about how the IUSD is committed to student safety, and IUSD procedures are based on scientific studies as well as gaining public agency approvals.
Ms. Brown goes on to state that there is “misleading” information in the community, and that there is mere “speculation” about the historical use of the site. She states: “The site, which was primarily used to grow crops for human consumption from the 1950s through 2013, has been comprehensively tested and independently reviewed.”

So, What Are The Facts?

The fact is that there is no speculation about the historical use of the site. The airbase was operational during WWII and the Korean War, and the Portola High School site did not begin to be used as a farm until the 1950s. The school site is also at the end of major runways, where it was well known that toxic waste was dumped, exactly of the sort that has been found in two excavations (one about 250 feet, offsite in the Agua Chinon, and one partly onsite — the yellow rectangle area on the map to the right) and in soil-gas test wells drilled around the periphery of the site.

The fact is that a map showing soil samples taken from 51 locations covering the entire interior of the school site was often used out of context by the IUSD to support their claim that the entire high school site was comprehensively tested. What they didn’t say is that those soil samples were mostly 6-inches deep, with some 3-feet deep, and that they were tested only for agricultural contaminants, such as pesticides, as if the site was always a farm and never saw wartime military use! None was tested for the toxic, Volatile and Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) used as solvents and for other purposes in military operations.

The fact is that toxic VOCs were discovered in large quantities in an excavation that penetrated the school site, itself, in November of 2014 (yellow rectangle on map, below). One or more of these VOCs (Benzene, Toluene, Ethylbenzene, Xylenes, 1,2,4 Trimethylbenzene, Tetrachloroethylene, and Trichloroethylene) were detected in 14 of 19 test wells drilled around the periphery of the school site. On the map, below, the red areas were NOT tested for these toxic VOCs!

It would seem likely that these same toxic chemicals are in the untested red areas, too, and perhaps even in high concentrations. It is irresponsible and reckless to continue building and occupy Portola High School without testing the entire site for VOCs.

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