The Irvine Unified School District’s (IUSD) reliance upon flawed test results could seriously jeopardize future students, teachers and other school personnel at the proposed Portola High School site.  The environmental testing underlying the decision to construct the new high school was performed as if the area was merely an “agricultural site.”  In fact, the area may have been used for over 50 years as a dumping area for the toxic waste of an active military air base.

RISK

In the April issue of Irvine Community News & Views, we quoted a former senior Orange County school facilities official who was asked his opinion about the designated site for Irvine’s next high school, Portola High.  He looked at the map and said, “The Irvine School District has chosen the very worst place in Orange County to build a school.”  He went on to say:  “It is well known that the military dumped everything at the end of the runways — it was a dangerous place.

Ignoring this fact, the Irvine School Board and administration claimed its 40-acre high school site at the end of the massive El Toro runways was simply “agricultural” land.  This proved to be an imprudent and risky presumption that led the School District and State officials to rely on a soil testing program that was inadequate and misleading.

DECEPTION and REALITY

Before IUSD officials could obtain State approval for the location of  the $300 million Portola High School on “Site A,” along Irvine Boulevard, a Preliminary Environmental Assessment (PEA) had to be prepared and submitted to the California  Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC).  The School District’s PEA report included a map showing the locations where soil samples were tested for toxic contamination.   That map showing 51 big black dots and 16 small red squares is, in fact, deceptive.  It  looks like a lot of testing was performed on the school site.

The reality is entirely different. After detailed investigation of the 200-page lab report submitted to the State DTSC, it turns out that of the 67 locations where soil and soil-gas samples were taken, at 42 of these locations the samples taken were a mere 6-inches deep, literally just scratching the surface.  Moreover, the tests were only for agricultural contaminants, such as pesticides.

At those 42 locations, there was no testing for Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and semi-volatile organic compounds that may have been buried there as part of the long-ago military operations.  These VOCs would include benzene, naphthalene, toluene, xylene and other toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents associated with jet fuels, gasoline, diesel, hydraulic fluids, engine coolants and solvents. These were the hazardous chemicals and materials used and discarded in vast quantities at former military bases around the country.

By deleting those 42 big black dots from the map — because there was no testing for VOCs — an entirely different picture of the tested area emerges.  What’s left is a map that  shows scant testing on the 40-acre Portola High School site.

It should not be surprising, then, that the most recent discovery of toxic contamination was found at a depth of 15 feet.  As a result of that discovery, almost 1,000 cubic yards — 78 truckloads — of material containing naphthalene and diesel oil were hauled off.  That was in mid-November 2014 during trenching to construct a box storm-drain on the edge of the high school site.  Also, there was a prior discovery of extensive toxic contamination during trenching in the nearby Agua Chinon in October of 2013.

The only worthwhile testing for VOCs was performed in wells along the former underground fuel pipelines crossing the school site, and also near the perimeter of the school site.  However, the two 40-foot deep soil-gas wells in the interior of the site were used to test only for methane.  (None was found.)

IUSD officials and the State DTSC stand by their claim that the Portola High School site is “safe.”  The plain fact is that the vast majority of the 40-acre high school site that has not been properly tested for toxic contamination is precisely where the future school buildings and teachers, staff and students will be located.

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

It is evident that now — after two major toxic contamination discoveries during trenching operations — that the Portola High School site begs for comprehensive testing by a truly independent firm to determine once and for all what additional toxic contamination is lurking… and to understand where it is all coming from.

This is precisely the kind of time-out and renewed investigation that the City of Irvine’s environmental consultant, David Richter, called for in an urgent memorandum six months ago. So far, his warnings have been ignored by the City, the School District, and the State Department of Toxic Substances Control.

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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