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Test for Toxics is Not the Enemy



What’s been baffling from the beginning was the selection five years ago of what was formerly called Site A as the site for Irvine’s 6th new high school, Portola High (PHS). Apparently under pressure from developers — and against all reason and common sense — IUSD approved locating PHS on a former Superfund site, once part of the El Toro Marine Corps airbase.

The 40-acre PHS site is located at the end of runways that were used for military operations for more than 50 years, and where aircraft fuels, solvents and other toxic materials were dumped. Moreover, the site is just 750 feet from a primitive, unlined, toxic waste landfill that operated on the base from 1943 until 1955.

We now know that the PHS site is, indeed, contaminated with toxic petrochemicals.

Larry Agran, former Irvine Mayor and Councilmember, wrote a detailed, 4-page letter to Governor Jerry Brown, in August of 2015. In his letter, Agran provided incontrovertible evidence that the PHS site was contaminated. He cited public records that revealed discoveries of petrochemicals — some in large quantities — including benzene, toluene, naphthalene and other toxic and cancer-causing chemicals.

IUSD officials, in complete disregard of these discoveries in 2013 and 2014, proceeded with school design and then construction.

In October of 2015, Governor Brown, and California EPA Secretary Matthew Rodriquez intervened. Based on a State geologist’s independent review of the evidence, Secretary Rodriquez and Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) Director Barbara Lee issued a March 2nd letter to IUSD with a series of orders, and their purpose: “The additional sampling will assess the site for the potential presence of contaminants that could pose a threat to the health of individuals who attend classes or work at the school, or people who might otherwise use the school’s property.”

In effect, these orders completely overruled an earlier, erroneous assessment by IUSD’s environmental consultant, PlaceWorks, that the site had only been used for agricultural purposes, as well as IUSD’s insistent claims that the site was safe.

The March 2nd orders stated that the site should have been properly characterized as having likely been used for military operations, thus requiring the entire site to be tested for the toxic petrochemicals associated with military operations and already found on the site. The orders continued:

Further investigation of this contamination is warranted to determine whether [it] is an isolated occurrence or whether it is indicative of a more extensive site-wide issue. [emphasis added]

I am directing the Irvine School District to submit a work plan for additional subsurface sampling [soil-gas in test wells]. The proposed [soil-gas] sampling activities should be discussed with DTSC, the public and other interested stakeholders, prior to the formal submittal of the work plan to the Department.” [emphasis added]

IUSD has disregarded the clear language of those orders, with the acquiescence of mid-level DTSC officials. For example, IUSD has been doing as little as possible to discover the nature and extent of the toxic contamination. It was only through a community uprising at IUSD’s March 22nd board meeting, attended by over 100 residents who could no longer bear the deceptions of the IUSD, PlaceWorks, and the DTSC, that the number of soil-gas test wells was nearly doubled.

Another example of IUSD’s intransigence is their refusal to disclose, so far, the progress and results of their testing activities.

The March 2nd orders also include one more critically important requirement: “The final report should provide risk estimates for exposure to subsurface contaminants to both students and faculty.”


Of greatest concern now, is this: The oversight of the testing and the preparation of the all-important health-risk analysis are being performed by the same discredited firm (PlaceWorks) that was dangerously wrong about its original assessment of the site. This creates an obvious conflict-of-interest that destroys any public credibility.

It is offensive and counterproductive that the public continues to be treated with disdain and as the enemy by IUSD. IUSD is supposed to be serving and protecting the community. Yet, each grudging step they have taken to safeguard the public has come only as a result of ever-increasing public pressure.

Towards the end of the raucous March 22nd IUSD Board Meeting, Superintendent Terry Walker emphatically stated, to sustained audience applause: “We would like to have 100% confidence that this site is safe.”

We agree! But, as things stand now, we cannot be close to having 100% confidence in the safety of PHS , or even that DTSC’s orders will be followed in good faith. It’s clearly up to the public to ensure that the Portola High School site is 100% safe. No one else will do it for us.

Harvey H. Liss


Irvine, CA
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