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Test for Toxics: Part 1 Investigative Report


Irvine officials disregard mounting health and safety risks.

Just 250 yards from the future Portola High School is a capped, toxic waste dump that will remain a restricted area.

After years of controversy — and despite recently discovered evidence of dangerous toxic contamination — Irvine School District (IUSD) officials are continuing to push ahead with construction at the site of the new Portola High School, which IUSD officials have pledged to open in September of 2016.

Located along Irvine Boulevard in the far northeastern area of Irvine near Lake Forest, Portola High School will be IUSD’s newest high school — and at $300 million by far the most expensive.

According to records recently obtained by Irvine Community News & Views, evidence continues to mount suggesting that toxic contamination at the 40-acre High School site (“Site A”) — and on nearby property — may portend a significant health and safety risk to the thousands of students who will be attending Portola High.  The risk is even greater to the teachers and staff who may be working there for 20, 30 or even 40 years.

These risks are known to the School District. Yet, IUSD officials have continued to rush  construction of the High School, while concealing important information from the public.  In fact, IUSD officials failed to publicly disclose the November 2014 discovery of dangerous toxic contamination, until forced to do so by a Public Records Act request from this reporter.

Last November, workers were digging a long trench to install a huge boxed concrete storm drain to serve the school and thousands of new homes yet to be built in the northern reaches of Irvine.  The official reports obtained under the California Public Records Act reveal that on November 13th, workers operating earthmoving equipment encountered, at a depth of 16 feet, an unusually strong odor and discolored soil — two red flags for possible toxic contamination.  In accordance with State law and regulations, work was stopped.  Then higher-ups were notified, and probing of the contaminated soil continued for 100 feet until apparently clean soil was found.

It soon became evident to workers on site, and presumably to school officials as well, that this was no small spill or “stain,” as later described by environmental consultants for the School District.  An email later revealed that the contaminated soil stretched 29 feet onto the Portola High School site; and the contamination permeated the soil to a depth of between 15 feet and 28 feet.  By the time all the suspect soil was removed for testing and disposal, the true extent of the “stained soil” hauled away amounted to 78 truckloads — nearly 1,000 cubic yards.

Test Results

Ordinarily, laboratory testing to determine levels of toxins and carcinogens (cancer-causing agents) in soil samples is a straightforward process completed in a matter of days.  Yet in the days and weeks after the initial discovery of potentially dangerous and toxic contamination, no test results were provided to the public.  No press releases were issued.  No newspaper stories appeared.  It was as though the worrisome discovery had never happened.

Except it did happen.  Tests were performed, but the results remained a secret, hidden from  the public. Finally, in response to a citizen’s January 27, 2015 Public Records Act request, on February 10th — three months after the initial discovery of what had been described simply as “stained soil” containing “non-hazardous petroleum hydrocarbons” — 245 pages of documents were released by School District officials, including dozens of pages of test data.

The findings?  There were significant and often remarkably high levels of hazardous petrochemicals — some levels were far beyond the “maximum permissible contaminant concentration.” These included significant concentrations of various benzene derivatives, naphthalenes, and extraordinary concentrations of diesel.  In addition, soil samples contained significant concentrations of heavy metals, for example: lead, chromium, cobalt and vanadium.  None of these toxic and — in some cases — carcinogenic agents typically occur in the natural environment.  With sufficient exposure, all of them can cause discomfort and even devastating disease — in laboratory animals and in humans.
More Questions

The test results — and the sheer magnitude of the contaminated soil discovered on Site A — raise a number of obvious, troubling questions:  What is the source of the contamination? Might there be much more toxic contamination nearby or elsewhere on Site A?  Don’t these results suggest a much higher risk than previously thought to the health and welfare of future Portola High School students, faculty and staff?

None of these questions appear to have been raised by School District officials, or consultants, according to public records released so far.  On the contrary, in emails from the School District’s chief environmental consultant, Denise Clendening, of PlaceWorks, IUSD officials were being urged to release as little information as possible about test results and their implications.

Identifying the original source of any toxic contamination is essential.  Is there more toxic contamination — perhaps much more — to be discovered?  Site A was part of the vast, 4,700-acre El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, with intense military operations from 1942 to 1999 that involved the heavy use and dumping of toxic fuels and chemicals.  The pollution at El Toro was so intense and prolonged that the Airbase was declared a national Superfund site in 1990 and has been undergoing cleanup by the U.S. Department of the Navy ever since.  Much of the cleanup has taken place, but much has not.

It’s possible that the massive contamination discovered at Site A, which is near an old runway, came from localized dumping of fuels, solvents, and even discarded aircraft parts at the end of the runway.  Another possibility is that the toxic contaminants found at Site A are part of a much larger toxic pollution problem that may have emanated from a nearby toxic waste dump — the now-capped landfill within IRP Site 3, located only 250 yards northwest of Site A, just on the other side of the Agua Chinon Wash, which is adjacent to Site A.

From 2009 to 2014, in opposing Site A as a school site, former Irvine Councilman Larry Agran frequently pointed to toxic waste dump IRP Site 3 (and nearby Anomaly Area 3) as posing a toxic pollution danger that should rule out Site A for any school.  Agran, a public interest attorney specializing in environmental health law, noted that in 2003 the City of Irvine published an Environmental Impact Report which described IRP Site 3 as the original waste disposal dump for the Airbase, covering approximately 20 acres, and operating from 1943 to 1955 (including World War II and the Korean War).  The contents of IRP Site 3 were said to include “municipal solid waste, scrap metal, incinerator ash, construction debris, paint residues, unspecified oily wastes, industrial solvents, hydraulic fluid and engine coolants.”

In other words, said Agran, “Everything went into that dump.  And mind you, this dump was just a great big hole in the ground.  There was no protective liner to contain its contents.  There was no thought of environmental protection.  In fact, the phrase ‘environmental protection’ wasn’t even part of the American lexicon in those days.”

Agran noted, “Toxic dumping, coupled with the effects of local geology, suggests the possibility of lateral migration, now or in the future, across and under the Agua Chinon Wash and onto Site A.”

He added, “It should be noted that in 2012 and 2013 it was revealed that workers operating earthmoving equipment had discovered dangerously high concentrations of toxic waste in the Agua Chinon, just 75 yards from Site A.  Lower concentrations of the same and related toxic chemicals were also found on the edge of Site A.”

Major Construction Getting Underway

Toxic contamination was discovered while constructing this storm drain at the site of the new High School. The discovery and subsequent findings were not disclosed to the public.

Despite repeated exhortations from Agran and others, the Irvine School Board, Superintendent Terry Walker, and State officials have either ignored or dismissed the growing evidence of a very serious toxic contamination problem.  On March 4, 2013, Irvine City Manager Sean Joyce wrote a letter to the Irvine Unified School Board, urging that the Board and District not give final approval to Site A for the High School until it took the time to conduct further testing.  This request, too, was ignored.

Instead, in their public pronouncements, Superintendent Walker and other IUSD officials continued to stress the importance of relieving overcrowding at existing Irvine high schools by opening Portola High School for 600 ninth graders in September of 2016.

When recently interviewed about the latest discovery of toxic contamination at Site A, former Councilmember Larry Agran expressed alarm and apparent disgust.  Referring to officials in positions of public responsibility — especially School District officials — Agran said, “They ignore everyone and everything.  They even ignore national standards and guidelines that clearly state: do not locate a school within 1,000 feet of a toxic waste dump, period!  Yet, that’s exactly what they’re doing.  Rather than asking some important questions, they are pushing ahead and risking the health and welfare of our community.

Agran added, “IUSD should simply do what’s prudent and in the public interest, rather than risking the health of generations of students, teachers and staff by doing the absolute minimum required by law.  Instead of all the obfuscation, ducking, weaving and shortcuts, IUSD should stop all site preparation and any preliminary construction right now.  They should stop building and start testing.  They should undertake much more comprehensive testing than what was originally performed for toxics on Site A, and all around Site A.  With the help of truly independent experts representing the students, teachers and staff rather than the developer, they would figure out what’s going on and possibly avoid a terrible tragedy.”

On November 19, 2014, IUSD staff sent an email to the School Board alerting Board members to the discovery of potentially contaminated soil that was discovered at Site A during excavation work for the storm drain along Irvine Boulevard.  School Board minutes do not indicate that this matter was ever reported or discussed publicly.

Harvey H. Liss


Irvine, CA
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