Letter to Gov. Brown prompts new review of toxic contamination at high school site

Responding to an August 31st letter sent to Governor Jerry Brown by former Irvine Mayor and Councilmember Larry Agran, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) now appears to be actively reviewing the toxic contamination controversy at the Portola High School site.

In his letter to the Governor, first published in the September issue of Irvine Community News & Views, Agran described and documented the lack of proper testing for dangerous toxic contaminants — presumably hazardous waste left from long-ago military operations at what is now the site of the $300 million Portola High School, slated to open in September, 2016.

In his letter to Gov. Brown, Agran decried “the failure of…the DTSC to safeguard the public against exposure to dangerous toxic contamination,” including jet fuel derivatives and a number of cancer-causing petrochemicals recently discovered along the entire perimeter of the Portola High School site.

Agran, who said he had “just about given up hope” of any response after almost two months had passed, reported that he was both surprised and pleased when he received a letter, dated October 26, 2015, from DTSC Division Chief Dot Lofstrom, writing on behalf of the office of State DTSC Director Barbara Lee.

Re-enter Dr. Liss

Agran quickly passed the DTSC reply letter on to Dr. Harvey Liss, an Irvine resident and former Planning Commissioner, who has been researching the toxics issue for almost two years. It was Dr. Liss who wrote a 5-part investigative series, published in Irvine Community News & Views. According to Agran, “I wanted Dr. Liss, a distinguished civil engineer and no doubt the foremost expert regarding the Portola High School site, to review the DTSC response to my August 31st letter, and prepare a detailed analysis for me…and for the public.”

Interviewed for this article, Dr. Liss said that while Chief Lofstrom’s letter included some of the same erroneous information previously disseminated by the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD), nevertheless the DTSC response to Agran’s August 31st letter provided an opening. Liss noted, “It presented an opportunity to engage high-level DTSC officials in Sacramento who were finally becoming familiar with the growing Portola High School toxics controversy here in Irvine.”

Demand to “Test for Toxics”

The Portola High School toxic contamination issue has given rise to widespread public anxiety throughout the Irvine community. More than 2,000 residents have petitioned the IUSD and City officials to suspend construction of the $300 million high school and commence comprehensive testing for petrochemical toxic contamination at the school site.

Growing numbers of Irvine citizens have expressed their frustration at the unresponsiveness of local officials, who have been unwilling to “test for toxics” at the Portola High School site. Angry at this, they have established a new website — aptly named www.TestForToxics.org — which now serves as a repository for key information and documentation, making it easily accessible online.

Reply to DTSC

On November 6th, Dr. Liss — writing on behalf of Larry Agran and himself — responded in detail to DTSC Division Chief Dot Lofstrom’s letter, point-by-point correcting its inaccuracies by referencing publicly available documents. Liss’s letter and all referenced documentation is now on the TestForToxics website.

In addition, Dr. Liss emailed letters with background information to California DTSC Director Barbara Lee and California EPA Secretary Matthew Rodriquez, in Sacramento. The central point that Liss made was that the Irvine Unified School District, the City of Irvine, and DTSC officials mischaracterized the high school site as having been solely used for “agricultural” purposes. In fact, located at the end of massive runways, the site had been used for military purposes, including the likely disposal of fuels, solvents, hydraulic fluids and other toxic wastes during World War II, the Korean War, and into the Vietnam War era.

Agran has said local officials’ mischaracterization of the site’s history is “a possibly catastrophic error” — given the fact that both adjacent to the school site and on the site, extensive soil contamination by military fuels and solvents was found that would not be compatible with agricultural use. Further, as Agran and Liss repeatedly pointed out, because of its classification as agricultural land, virtually the entire interior of the school site was tested only for agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, and not for extraordinarily dangerous and cancer-causing petrochemicals (benzene, naphthalene, toluene and other “VOCs” — Volatile Organic Compounds).

In his interview, Liss said that “within ten minutes” of emailing his letter to DTSC Chief Lofstrom, he received an acknowledgement indicating that she would be reviewing all the information he had sent. In a later email exchange, Chief Lofstrom indicated that sometime in December she and her technical team would meet with DTSC Director Barbara Lee.

Next Steps

Next steps are unclear. DTSC has the authority — some say the legal and moral obligation — to simply order new, comprehensive testing of the entire Portola High School site. Alternatively, DTSC could order public hearings or meet with representatives of citizens whose single-minded demand to “test for toxics” seems to grow louder with each passing day.

Asked to comment on the toxics issue, Irvine Community News & Views publisher Franklin Lunding said, “Having enlisted Dr. Harvey Liss to research and write his breakthrough series on toxic contamination at the Portola High School site, we intend to stay on top of this story to ensure full transparency. Most importantly, we want to do our part to ensure the health and safety of thousands of future teachers, staff and students at Portola High. The only way to do that is through comprehensive testing for toxics that, regrettably, should have been done years ago.” Lunding paused, then said, “Testing…the sooner it’s done, the better.”

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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