Cook the Toxic Books

What should be the final vote on the county's proposed El Toro International Airport is less than three months away. On March 5, voters will finally choose between the county's hated airport proposal and the South County's Great Park plan.

That's why pro-airport forces have begun a desperate campaign. Their plan is to scare voters into thinking El Toro—a Superfund site since 1990—is so contaminated that it can never support the Great Park.

Ironically, the chief evidence—indeed, the only evidence—for this anti-park effort comes from a two-year-old report paid for by the anti-airport city of Irvine.

The core of this new campaign is a report released last month called Environmental Risks Associated With the Great Park Proposal. Written by environmental attorney and Laguna Beach resident Greg Hurley and funded by the Newport Beach-based Airport Working Group, the report warns "the uses proposed for the Great Park present unacceptable health and economic risks for the community."

Considering that extraordinary claim and the fact that Hurley has for the past five years chaired the El Toro Restoration Advisory Board (RAB), which oversees the Navy's base cleanup, his report is extremely thin. It's just 20 pages, with a further 100 pages of padding, including maps, another El Toro contamination report, newspaper articles and Great Park brochures. Hurley says he wrote the report because the Great Park "is not an appropriate use and people are not really aware of this."

Hurley's work is based entirely on another report written for the city of Irvine back in January 2000. That report, compiled by Santa Ana-based PES Environmental Inc.—which Hurley helpfully included with his own report—alleged that the Navy had underestimated solvent contamination throughout El Toro, somehow missing "between 70,000 and 700,000 pounds" of solvents that leaked out of the base's sanitary sewer system for more than 50 years. PES said the solvents would have come from aircraft and vehicle washings—activities that typically use degreasers like the cancer-causing trichloroethylene (TCE).

What Hurley neglected to mention in his study is that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) rejected the PES report as "highly speculative." The PES report is deductive, starting with the existence of clay sewer lines under the El Toro base and concluding that solvents could have flushed through them and leaked into the soil.

But the EPA, as well as the Cal-EPA Department of Toxic Substances Control, which also reviewed the PES study, didn't buy it.

"The low figure of 70,000 pounds of solvents is an order of magnitude greater than the [TCE] spill we know about from Site 24 on the base," said Glenn Kistner, the EPA official who reviewed the PES report. "That Site 24 spill was very easy to find. We've taken thousands of ground-water samples all over the base, but everything points to Site 24."

In other words, there is no evidence the massive solvent leakage theorized by PES exists. The reason, which Navy officials outlined during a May 31, 2000, RAB meeting—a meeting Hurley chaired—was that the El Toro Marines usually flushed solvents through the storm drains and not the sewer lines.

"Drawings from 1957 of the station's sanitary system and storm drain systems clearly confirm that the aircraft wash areas, all the vehicle wash areas and most of the other areas on the station were connected to the storm drains," said Navy official Don Whittaker during the RAB meeting. According to Kistner, the Navy recently inspected a dry cleaning facility that was connected to the sewer system but found no contamination.

Ignoring all that, Hurley called the PES report "solid work." Hurley also wasn't honest about referencing certain PES statements. In fact, he altered key passages of the report—reprinting some language while adding subtle but powerful changes—which he then tried to pass off as PES conclusions.

A good example of this was Hurley's use of Section 8.3 of the PES Report. Titled "Worker Health and Safety," the section contains a sentence warning that "it is likely that construction workers will be exposed to harmful levels" of contamination when excavating for the county's proposed international airport.

Hurley used that sentence throughout his report, but he replaced the words "construction workers" with the much scarier and more expansive word "community." Hurley offered no evidence to indicate why people beyond construction workers actually digging in the dirt would face exposure to contamination.

Similarly, Hurley called for "comprehensive testing" of El Toro requiring "2 million soil samples." Interestingly, PES never called for such testing, instead recommending that officials place small cameras throughout the sewer lines to check for leaks. When asked how he derived his testing figure, Hurley called it a "back of the envelope number" that he "thought seemed appropriate."

His report may be junk, but Hurley is right about one thing: El Toro is a mess. There is considerable solvent, perchlorate and radioactive contamination throughout the base. And the Navy needs to clean it up.

Hurley believes the Navy will never clean El Toro to the point where it can safely become a park, but there is precedent for it. The best example is San Francisco's Crissy Field.

Built as an Army air field in 1919, 100-acre Crissy Field later became a fuel depot, toxic waste dump and junkyard for the nearby Presidio. But in 1998, four years after the Army abandoned the base, volunteers began restoring Crissy Field to its 19th-century state. Today, Crissy Field is a public park, with sand dunes, meadows and 18 acres of tidal wetlands, all overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

Granted, there is a big difference between the 100 acres of Crissy Field and the Great Park's 1,500 acres, but if the county resolutely holds the Navy accountable for the contamination it created, residents will eventually get their park.

Pissed off? Tell Hurley at the RAB meeting, Irvine City Hall, 1 Civic Center Plaza, Irvine. Jan. 30, 6:30 p.m.

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