A peoples environmental impact report on El Toro International Airport

Courtesy of the Nasa WebsiteExcept for a few golfing diehards who don't mind a flat, featureless course; some local horse and Winnebago owners; and the occasional sheriff's deputy, nobody visits the abandoned El Toro Marine Corps Air Station anymore. And it really shows. The once-vibrant base is overgrown with head-high, prickly weeds. Most buildings are locked tight, their asbestos-lined walls slowly crumbling into the soil.

For the past four and a half years, county officials and outside consultants have been compiling the main El Toro Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and the vaunted Airport System Master Plan (ASMP) to explain what the county wants to do with this rapidly decaying base. Stacked, the reports and studies of the draft EIR top six feet.

But even a cursory read by the mildly curious reveals that the reports are plagued with inaccuracies, contradictions and ample evidence that the county's planned El Toro International Airport will be a monumental nightmare that—once built—will never go away.

The reports describe an international airport handling 28.8 million passengers per year, two million tons of cargo per year, and 300,574 flights per year—which pencils out to 823.5 flights per day, all day, every day. Roughly speaking, the county wants to build an airport the size of San Francisco International, the nation's fifth-largest. And county officials say they can do it all for $3 billion.

On Sept. 17, the county Board of Supervisors will vote 3-2 to approve the EIR and ASMP, signaling to the federal government that Orange County is ready to begin building the airport. The approving supervisors—Cynthia Coad, Chuck Smith and Jim Silva—will say El Toro will be a clean, neighborly airport. They will say county officials have done a wonderful job. They will say the airport will usher in a new golden age for the county.

They are wrong. El Toro will require a monumental construction job to convert it into a commercial airport. And once completed, the airport's design, surrounding terrain and weather will present considerable problems for the pilots who have to use it. The county's own noise consultants say overflying aircraft will drown thousands of homes in "sleep-disturbing" noise. Toxic emissions from the airport will, according to the county's contradictory and incomplete air-quality analyses, cause cancer in thousands of people who work in and live near El Toro. Most incredible of all, the county can't conceive of a reliable way to ship fuel to its monster airport.

What's needed is a People's Environmental Impact Report. So here it is.


1. Mountain barriers. The place where the county wants to build its massive international airport is a nightmare for pilots. "The air station is screened on three sides by mountain barriers," states the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the federal agency in charge of weather forecasting. There's 1,500-foot Loma Ridge to the north and more 1,000-foot ridges to the east. Saddleback Mountain, at more than 5,000 feet tall, lies a couple of miles to the northeast. The Laguna Hills lie four miles to the south.

2. Tailwinds. First, the physics: all pilots prefer taking off into the wind to ensure maximum airflow over their plane's wing surfaces, thus increasing lift. The worst situation: taking off with the wind—a condition called tailwinds. Now for the meteorology: NOAA and Marine Corps historical weather data show the wind at El Toro blows east eight months out of the year, averaging about six knots and often reaching 10. The county's plan calls for nearly 70 percent of all aircraft to depart to the east, with these tailwinds. To surrounding mountains and tailwinds, add . . .

3. Runway gradient. The base the Marines formally abandoned on July 2, 1999, was largely a World War II relic. Constructed in the early 1940s, when all aircraft had reciprocating engines and propellers that allowed for slow takeoff and landing speeds and distances, the surrounding terrain and weather meant little. Navy construction crews poured concrete into two runways pointing north-south and two heading east-west, crossing in the middle like a giant plus sign. Never properly graded, the base's southern and western edges are between 60 feet and 120 feet lower than the northern and eastern edges. That slope creates a 1.55 percent gradient on the east-west runways. And that will force aircraft to climb the equivalent of a 10-story building. It also violates Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) runway requirements.

4. Encroaching urban development. The hillsides surrounding El Toro are increasingly home to semiluxurious housing developments. "Land in the immediate vicinity of the station is cleared and cultivated and under extensive urbanization," states NOAA. Coto de Caza, Lake Forest and Mission Viejo are nothing but homes. The Irvine Co.'s massive Spectrum technology and entertainment complex lines the base's southern perimeter; beyond that, thousands of retirees live in Laguna Woods. In the Santiago Hills of east Orange just north of the base, the Irvine Co. is planning a massive 7,000-acre residential and commercial development.

"Urban encroachment is why the Marines closed El Toro in the first place," said Marine Lieutenant Colonel Tom O'Malley (retired), a consultant to the South County cities allied against the airport, during the Aug. 15 county El Toro forum in Lake Forest. A consultant who participated in the 1992-1993 Department of the Navy negotiations to close El Toro and who requested anonymity confirmed O'Malley's assessment to the Weekly.

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