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Test for Toxics: Part 5 Investigative Report


A capped landfill containing toxic waste from long-ago military operations, including wartime, is located approximately 800 feet from the under-construction Portola High School site.  In October of 2013 — during trenching in the Agua Chinon Wash, located between the capped landfill and the school site — workers discovered significant toxic contamination.  Nearly 500 cubic yards — 40 truckloads — of contaminated material were removed.

More recently, in November of 2014, workers again discovered toxic contamination, this time on the Portola High School site itself, almost in a direct line from the capped landfill, extending past the Agua Chinon contamination onto the school site.  This time, almost 1,000 cubic yards — 78 truckloads —of contaminated soil had to be removed.  This latest known discovery — first revealed as part of this investigative series in the March 2015 issue of Irvine Community News & Views — was made during trenching for a concrete, box storm-drain immediately adjacent to the school site along Irvine Boulevard.  The contamination, a 100-foot swath, reached at least 29 feet onto the school site, where it was evident at a depth ranging between 16 and 28 feet.

Once dismissed as speculation, it is now an incontrovertible fact that the Portola High School site is contaminated.  This is likely from decades of El Toro Marine Corps airbase operations.  Looking at a map and seeing that the Portola High School site is located at the end of two major runways, a former Orange County school facilities official said before the latest discovery of contamination: “It’s well known that the military dumped everything at the end of the runways… it’s virtually guaranteed that there will be problems sometime in the future.”


It is now apparent that the testing protocol for toxic contamination on the Portola High School site performed to gain public agency approval was erroneous.  That testing protocol, approved by the regional office of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC), only sought to identify agricultural contaminants near the surface of most of the school site.  But, according to aerial photos, the school site area was used for military operations for at least 10 years, including WWII and the Korean War — before any later agricultural activities were evident.

To accommodate the box storm-drain, as well as a minor street realignment, the school site was shifted southerly, incorporating a new 3.53-acre strip of land into the school site.  Oddly, this new, thin strip of land along the perimeter of the school site underwent soil-gas testing for Volatile and Semi-Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), even though the interior of the site was not tested.   The additional testing on that thin strip, performed in April of 2014, included 11 test wells drilled up to 15 feet deep; 10 of the wells showed significant concentrations of one or more of the following chemicals:  benzene, bromodichloromethane, chloroform, ethylbenzene, toluene, 1,2,4 or 1,3,5-trimethylbenzene, and xylenes. These toxic and carcinogenic (cancer-causing) contaminants were already found elsewhere near the high school site.

As was the case in all previous testing, the official reporting contained neither questions nor discussion about the origins of those toxins that were found on a supposed farm.  No one asked if there were more deposits in higher concentrations nearby or elsewhere on the school site.  All the discovered toxins and carcinogens were components of jet fuel, gasoline and various solvents and engine coolants used during military operations, according to Department of the Navy documents.

As long ago as March 4, 2014, during the public comment period for the Irvine Unified School District’s (IUSD) Preliminary Environmental Assessment (PEA) that incorporated the results of IUSD’s sketchy testing program, Irvine’s City Manager, Sean Joyce, submitted to the IUSD Board a letter objecting to the testing previously performed.  He wrote: “I encourage you to consider the need for additional testing to further inform your school siting decision.

Just two months later, Dr. Yoram Rubin, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at UC Berkeley, offered his expert opinion.  He was interviewed by the Orange County Register after the Agua Chinon contamination discovery.  In a front-page Register story on May 3, 2014,    Dr. Rubin expressed his concerns in the clearest terms: “[T]here is something wrong…but they don’t have enough information to make any determination about the level of risk.  I don’t know what the source is.  I don’t know when it happened.  I don’t know if there are any more contaminants 50 or 100 feet away – they tested soil from only two spots.  There’s a need for more extensive site investigation.”

More recently, on November 13, 2014, the City of Irvine’s own environmental consult-ant,  David Richter, sent an email to the City, making it clear the contamination discovery on the Portola High School site was “unanticipated” — it was  a “changed condition” that changed everything.  He wrote that he expected State DTSC officials would immediately decertify the site, require additional testing and mitigation, “and will only re-certify the site for school construction after it was satisfied that there is no significant risk to students or school workers.”

What are the chances that the interior of the school site is miraculously free of toxic contamination?  According to experts, there is only one way to answer that question: Undertake comprehensive testing.


Previous testing, mostly for agricultural contaminants, did nevertheless include some useful testing for toxic VOCs involving the drilling of 16 wells at depths ranging from 15 to 40 feet.  However, these tests were performed in only a very limited area, along abandoned fuel pipelines and near the school-site perimeter.

According to the same testing firm, to repeat that kind of deep-well testing would cost just under $15,000 for the 16 wells, requiring less than a week to perform.

Drilling 100 test wells, which should be sufficient to cover the site, would cost less than $100,000, and take, perhaps, a few weeks.  Obviously, compared to the total high school cost of $300 million, the cost of testing is trivial.

Comprehensive testing offers what one expert described as “an inexpensive insurance policy, considering what’s at stake.”

Moreover, according to a City legal memorandum, the City of Irvine, IUSD, and the State are exposed to massive liability in the event of diseases, disabilities, and deaths associated with allowing the school construction to go forward on a known contaminated site.  According to legal experts, this could amount to billions of dollars.

Furthermore, long before any legal liability is established, if any student, faculty or staff at the school contracts a dread disease, regardless of its actual cause, school-site contamination will be the first suspect, and the lawsuits will follow.

Interviewed for his insights, Dr. Ralph (Ray) Catalano, Professor of Public Health at UC Berkeley, and former  member of the Irvine City Council, observed: “Under the circumstances, it would be dangerous and irresponsible for the School District to go forward without immediately undertaking comprehensive soil and soil-gas testing of the Portola High School site, using agreed-upon test protocols.”  Catalano added, “In light of the risks, it’s the obvious and prudent thing to do.”

Harvey H. Liss


Irvine, CA
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