A peoples environmental impact report on El Toro International Airport

The county is, of course, referring to the South County's old "Millennium Plan," a mixed proposal of commercial, residential, education and park uses. That plan has since been abandoned in favor of the vaguer "Great Park." And if the Great Park has even half as much parkland as its authors promise, it will yield far fewer daily trips than the 339,000 projected by the county for the Millennium Plan.

At the same time, county propaganda makes the incredible claim that traffic will get worse no matter what gets built—or even if nothing gets built—at El Toro. "There will be 761,910 fewer vehicle miles traveled than under a scenario in which an airport is not built," states a county flier on traffic.

The county's logic here is quite simple, if wrong: since so many county residents in the future are destined to be driving to an airport, it's better that they make short trips to El Toro than longer trips to LAX, Ontario or wherever. Thus, to keep traffic manageable, the county has no choice but to build a big airport at El Toro.

The problem with this spin is that the massive demand for an airport the county says it's trying to meet simply doesn't exist. A few months ago, the Southern California Association of Governments admitted it had overestimated the number of Orange County residents using local airports by 4 million—the right number was just 12 million, not 16 million, every year. Subtract from that number the approximately 5 million who use an airport other than John Wayne Airport, and you come up with an accurate county-airport-demand number of 7 million. And, indeed, in the past five years, demand at John Wayne has stayed pretty much stagnant, hovering around 7.5 million passengers per year.

If all that weren't enough, county El Toro spokesman Tom Wall recently told South County residents that El Toro International Airport isn't about their traveling needs. Instead, Wall said, El Toro International was really driven by the desire to attract global tourists.


County promotional materials talk about the airport's impact on air quality in vague, contradictory ways. One single-sheet flier titled "Frequently Asked Questions—Air Quality" mentions that El Toro will "potentially increase air pollution to the region" as well as "improve air quality." It bets on future cleaner-burning aircraft engines but adds the caveat that "the county's environmental analysis does not take into account this new technology."

The concern about air quality masks a darker anxiety about cancer. But even after reading the county's December 1999 EIR and the April 2001 misleadingly titled "Supplemental Air Quality Analysis" (it actually revises, not supplements, the original EIR), it's impossible to nail down a reliable estimate of how many people will die of cancer because of the giant airport.

Identifying cancer risk shouldn't be terribly difficult. But in the case of El Toro, no one knows what the elevated cancer risk is because the county's tables and calculations make no sense.

"The information provided in the EIRs is not sufficient to understand or verify," said Judy B. Yorke, a licensed environmental engineer who has been running her own San Juan Capistrano-based engineering firm for the past six years. "There's no way to know what the true health impact will be."

Yorke pored through the county's air-quality reports and tables on June 14, 2001. In comments she submitted to the county, she said she was astonished to find that county consultants had used an obsolete computer-modeling program that dated to 1993—still allowed by state law but long since abandoned by private industry. Into that obsolete model, Yorke soon discovered, county officials had fed information they didn't disclose in the EIR. Yorke was in the position of an algebra student whose test includes a faulty formula and no variables.

"Without those inputs, we can't verify what the county put into the computer model in the first place," said Yorke, who added that including these inputs is common—even mandatory —for firms fulfilling private contracts.

Despite those problems, Yorke identified a significant flaw in the county's research. If the county is correct, the impossible will occur sometime in the next few years: as El Toro International produces more pollution, the health risks to humans will fall.

For instance, the Supplemental Analysis lists 29 toxic compounds that both El Toro and John Wayne will emit. At build-out in 2020, El Toro considerably exceeds John Wayne in emitting 22 of these compounds, including such scary toxics as benzene, formaldehyde and diesel PM-10. But the Supplemental Analysis table titled "Worst-Plausible Excess Lifetime Cancer Risk" doesn't match those numbers.

Easily the most important table in the entire EIR, this is supposed to explain how many people will get cancer because they're exposed to emissions from El Toro. As you read the following, keep in mind that the South Coast Air Quality Management District considers a risk of 10 in 1 million excessive.

Under current conditions, according to the Supplemental EIR, the risk of getting cancer from working at John Wayne right now is 7,686 in 1 million, but only 134 in 1 million at El Toro. That's fair enough at the moment, since nothing is happening at El Toro while John Wayne serves 7.5 million passengers per year.

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