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By Matt Coker
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Photo by Myles RobinsonIrvine and the U.S. Department of the Navy agree on this: 200 feet below the city, a mile-wide plume of water bearing cancer-causing compounds extends from the closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station three miles east into Irvine's Woodbridge residential community.
The two sides differ on just about everything else. The city suspects groundwater contamination is eight to 80 times worse than the military has acknowledged. And they differ on how much tainted water there is, how far below the surface it flows, and where it originally came from.
The Navy says the witches' brew of chemicals comes from two side-by-side hangars in the southwest corner of the base. Over the years, 8,000 pounds of "volatile organic compounds" (VOCs) from the hangars have seeped into the groundwater and spread into Irvine, the Navy maintains.
Those assertions have raised eyebrows at City Hall. How could the Navy be so sure that one isolated area on a base that opened for business in 1943 is responsible for all toxic contamination?
The city hired an environmental consultant to sift through historical records. According to the city, the firm discovered that Marines painted, cleaned, degreased, dry cleaned and carried out other environmentally hazardous practices all over the base. The firm also uncovered something more ominous: a 26-mile sewer system that encircles El Toro just below the surface. Multiple drains feed the sewer pipes, so it's likely toxic runoff flowed from the drains into the pipes, which were manufactured in the '40s and made of clay. As municipalities around the nation have since painfully discovered, clay pipes break easily.
The Navy's depiction of the plume is neat; Irvine's is catastrophic.
According to Irvine City Councilman Larry Agran, toxins in the sewer system could pose a threat to workers digging up the soil and would "jeopardize all kinds of reuse"—including the county-backed commercial airport and the South County cities' anything-but-an-airport Millennium Plan. Worse, he said, "It suggests a kind of incompetence or active concealment on the part of the Department of the Navy and the Department of Defense that verges on criminal conduct, in my opinion."
The city's consternation is summed up in a report released in January. Taking into account the amount of work done all over the base, the configuration of the sewer system, and the materials and practices used to dispose of waste over the years, the report estimates that 70,000 to 700,000 pounds of VOCs could be under El Toro.
Irvine concedes the Navy has worked diligently with the city and Orange County Water District to capture bad water from the plume, clean it and return it to an unused underground aquifer deep below the city for future irrigation use. But city officials fret that once that work (and capping a few landfills) is done, the Navy will wash its hands of further environmental responsibility for El Toro.
If more contamination is found once the base has been converted to another use, the Navy could argue that the new use was responsible for the toxins, said city consultant Michael Brown.
At press time, there was no official Navy response to the report, although one was demanded by the citizen Restoration Advisory Board (RAB) gathered at Irvine City Hall on March 29. State and federal agencies are also officially "still studying" the two-volume report.
While everyone talks amongst themselves, there may be an inexpensive solution to the problem: city staffers estimate it would cost about $50,000 to examine soil samples around the base for contamination and run a video camera through the sewer line in search of leaks.
"This could be one of the best deals in the history of government: to find out for $50,000 if there is a problem," Agran said. "And this would not take months or a year. It could be done in two weeks."
The Navy has not gotten back to the city about the proposed tests.
Until the city's theory is proven false, Agran is taking a let-the-buyer-beware attitude. "This is the game being played: the Department of the Navy not only wants to give us the 'gift' of these public lands, but they also want to give us the liability," he said. "Anyone with an ounce of sense would be saying you're not giving us anything until the extent of the problem is identified and a federally funded cleanup is in place."
The Navy actually has another option. Near the end of the RAB meeting, a faceless fed pulled transparencies out of a pile and put them on an overhead projector to display the various options for El Toro once the Navy turns the land over to its new owner. Included were the usual suspects: maps of each of the three commercial airport configurations the county has coughed up over the years, plus the Millennium Plan, which would convert the base into a central park, museums and homes.
Then the fed slipped in one that no one expected: it showed the closed base exactly as it is today.
"The Navy doesn't have to sell it," he said. "They could put a fence around the runways, grow some grass and just keep it that way."