When I began the investigation of the toxic contamination found adjacent to and on the site of Portola High School (now under construction), my intention was merely to report my findings.  It turned out that my mere inquiries altered the course of the story — I became part of the story.  In fact, I’m mentioned several times in internal emails.  Hence, Part 3 of this special investigation is written in the first person, since I’m reporting my experience as a participant.

At long last, the most recent episode of serious toxic contamination is getting some recognition from the Irvine City Council — more than five months after contamination was discovered Nov. 13, 2014 on the Portola High School site, where Irvine’s new High School is now under construction. The toxic contamination was discovered during a storm-drain trenching operation and was simply and benignly described as “stained soil.”

As reported in the April issue of the ICNV, I obtained thousands of pages of emails in response to my Public Records Act request to the City of Irvine, the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) and the State Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).  After thoroughly reviewing all the emails and related documents, I discovered the alarming nature of the contamination from a report made last November 18th by the City’s own consultant, David Richter, Principal Environmental Scientist for Ninyo & Moore.

Astonishingly, I also discovered upon further analysis that this report apparently was never transmitted to the Director of Public Works, the City Manager, or the City Council.  Therefore, I felt obliged to take action and email a letter to the Council on April 17th attaching Mr. Richter’s complete report. I underscored the importance of these words from Mr. Richter: “Based on our experience it is our expectation that the DTSC will reconsider its prior approval of the PEA [Preliminary Environmental Assessment] and will request additional information … and will only re-certify the site for school construction after it is satisfied that there is no significant risk to students or school workers.” [emphasis added]

The same day, I received an emailed reply from Councilmember Christina Shea in which she wrote:  “This is troubling information, and I am copying Sean [Sean Joyce, City Manager] to request a response from staff.”  The next day I received an email from Councilmember Lynn Schott in which she wrote: “Thank you for your communication about this important matter. I will be following up.”  On April 21st, Councilmember Beth Krom, in a memo to the City Manager, requested that the matter be placed on the City Council agenda for April 28th, “to allow us an opportunity to learn more about the status of the site, the City’s role in ensuring that the site is properly managed with respect to toxic contamination, and to provide direction if necessary to the City Manager regarding this project and associated public health issues.”

What remains as the only evidence I have that the DTSC was informed of the exact nature of the contamination is from my Public Records Act request to the IUSD that revealed an email sent on Jan 8th by Denise Clendening, environmental consultant to the IUSD, to Rana Georges, Project Manager for the DTSC. That email, sent to the DTSC more than seven weeks after the lab report was available — but just one day after I had requested it — included the original lab report that Clendening received seven weeks earlier, on Nov 18th, from Jim Werkmeister of FivePoint Communities. I received it only after the excavation had been covered up.  I thought to myself that this smells like a cover up, figuratively and literally.

Now, we are left only with many questions:

1. Why wasn’t Mr. David Richter’s emailed memo, with his recommendations, forwarded to the City Manager and City Council?

2. If the City had no intention of getting involved with the contamination on the high school site (despite huge potential legal liability), and had no intention of following the urgent recommendations of their expensive environmental scientist, why was he hired in the first place?

3. And most importantly, why wasn’t the DTSC, the State agency created to protect the public from toxic exposure, more curious and more involved in finding out the nature of the contamination and  then decertifying the site, as Richter expected?

Meanwhile, as of this writing, construction of the $300 million Portola High School continues unabated at a cost of more than $1 million per week.

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