Dancing around a great problem at The Great Park

The El Toro Shuffle? The Great Park Gavotte? The Irvine Ranch Water District Toxic Waltz? We should come up a name for the little dance.

It's a simple four step dance, and very familiar one. Scientists point out a looming environmental threat and call for government action. The Bush administration, refusing to act and attempting to dismiss the scientists as panic-mongers and tree-huggers, calls for even more scientific study before it will even consider acting. The further study is completed, and the problem turns out to be even worse than suspected. Finally, the Bush administration announces it will take action, while doing as little as possible.

We've seen the dance done when it comes to global warming. Finally faced with the sort of evidence of a problem it can't ignore– the surprisingly strong ticket sales for Al Gore's movie– the Bush administration has stopped pretending global warming isn't a serious problem, and started pretending its taking serious action to address the problem. Earlier this month, President Bush told that noted scientific journal, People Magazine, that “I'm in the process of solving” global warming. Perhaps in the near future we can look forward to him telling In Touch Weekly or TV Guide that he's busy solving the problem of trichloroethylene pollution.

Yesterday, the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council release the results of 18 month study, which assessed the health risks of exposure to trichloroethylene (TCE), a common industrial solvent, widely used by industry and the military, and one which has seeped into the soil and ground water at numerous sites around the country. Turns out that TCE is much more dangerous than had been realized when the EPA set the acceptable level for TCE exposure at 5 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water. (5 ppb is also the threshold the EPA set for action regarding the problem TCE “vapor intrusion”. TCE is a volatile compound, and can pollute the air through evaporation. According to 2002 EPA guidelines, when the concentration of TCE in water or soil samples is higher than 5 pbb, steps should be taken to make sure TCE vapors are not polluting the air.) According to the report (available here as a pdf. file) all available evidence points to TCE being a potent carcinogen, and a cause of reproductive and developmental problems, neurological damage and immune system disorder as well. Faced with the evidence of the report, the Bush administration has promised action… sort of. As the Washington Post reports this morning,

“Armed with the results from the NAS review, EPA will aggressively move forward” on a new risk assessment of TCE, spokeswoman Jennifer Wood said Thursday. “EPA will determine whether or not to address the drinking water standard once the risk assessment is complete.”

Actually, the EPA already determined that back in 2001, when it proposed to drop to the acceptable level of exposure to 1 ppb. But when the EPA first made that recommendation, it was immediately attacked by the less green parts of the Bush administration. The Defense Department was particularly harsh in its attack on the EPA, issuing a statement claiming “the classification of TCE as 'highly likely to produce cancer in humans' appears to be based on the ardor and hypotheses of the EPA authors, rather than on sound scientific evidence”. Not surprisingly, the Bush administration sided with the DoD, and refused to do anything other than asking the National Academy of Sciences to do further research on the matter.

Of course, the Defense Department had a good reason to go on the attack– stricter standards on TCE would force it to clean up many DoD sites, former and current, which are heavily polluted with TCE. Sites like the former El Toro airbase (soon to be the Great Park), and the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station.

As Anthony Pignataro reported in the Weekly back in 1999, not only were those two sites heavily contaminated (samples from the Seal Beach NWS reached as high as 163,000 ppb), but the pollution from El Toro has crept from the military world into the civilian.

A three mile long plume of TCE contamination stretches out from El Toro and into the groundwater under the Woodbridge section of Irvine. The Irvine Ranch Water District has been engaged in a long term effort to clean up the TCE pollution in its aquifer, and despite the fact that some of samples back in 1999 showed levels of 140 ppb, has always maintained that the contamination is not a serious problem for the public. Likewise, the Department of Defense maintains that it has the El Toro site pollution under control, and it will in no way interfere with the creation of the Great Park, or all those homes that are to be built at the former air station (though the DoD's reputation for honesty in this area is not entirely unblemished). Of course, all this was before the latest report.

Whether the new report will cause any changes in how the Irvine Ranch Water District and the DoD handle the problem of TCE pollution in Orange County remains to be seen. Hopefully, like President Bush and global warming, they are “in the process of solving it”.

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