By Gustavo Arellano
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By Charles Lam
Illustration by Bob AulDepending on whatever's politically expedient at that moment, Irvine Mayor Larry Agran and other city officials have espoused radically different views on toxic contamination at the old El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Sometimes they say the base is an environmental nightmare; other times it's prime park land.
In an April 6 Los Angeles Times piece, reporter Jean O. Pasco identified a zone euphemistically called "Anomaly Area 3" that presents the first of what could be many land-development headaches plaguing the Great Park. It seems that part of the base is so contaminated the Navy won't even include it in the 3,500-acre land auction set to take place in June.
Area Anomaly 3 is part of an old landfill on the base's northeastern corner, near the intersection of Irvine Boulevard and Marine Way. Approximately 800 feet long and 30 feet deep, the dump contains extremely hazardous construction debris and, the Navy says, dangerous levels of asbestos, arsenic, benzopyrene and petroleum hydrocarbons.
According to Irvine's Great Park plan, the dumpsite would be smack in the middle of 1,100 homes. Unless Irvine wants to dump the houses and turn the site into an Asbestos Land theme park, this presents a major stumbling block.
But these days, Irvine officials just don't see it. To them, nothing stands in the way of converting El Toro into a developer-friendly collection of homes, offices, big-box retail outlets and, if there's any land left, parks. An anonymous city official writing on Len Kranser's El Toro Information website asserted, "We do not see [the contaminated dump] as a problem."
Not now, anyhow. Back in the late 1990s, when Irvine's official policy was to stop El Toro from being converted into an international airport, Agran and other officials said the base was a toxic time bomb. The city even shelled out $200,000 for a study that supposedly found massive solvent contamination at underportions of the base. The Navy, the federal Environmental Protection Agency and even state environmental officials all said the study was bogus, but Irvine stuck to it.
However, when it became clear the county's airport proposal was deader than Jerry Lewis' career, Agran and his Irvine cohorts began seeing less and less toxic waste at El Toro. Last year, one pro-airport activist even held up the old Irvine solvents study as a basis to preclude any Great Park. Agran's response? He called his study and all toxics concerns over El Toro "red-herring issues."
Whether Agran likes it or not, El Toro is a mess. There is considerable solvent, perchlorate and radiological contamination throughout the base. Cleaning it all will take lots of time and money. Who knows? Maybe toxic contamination will preclude so much development county residents will get their huge park after all. Just watch where you set that picnic basket.