by Harvey H. Liss*  

Brief Review

As a brief review of what has recently transpired, on March 2nd the Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) received a letter [click here for annotated letter from Irvine Community News & Views] signed by California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) Director Barbara A. Lee, on behalf of Matthew Rodriquez, Secretary of the California EPA, ordering IUSD to develop a work plan for testing the interior of the Portola High School site for toxic petrochemical contamination.  [Click here to see previous blog, dated March 7, 2016]  An identical letter was also sent to former Mayor and Councilmember Larry Agran.  The orders required community and stakeholder participation in developing the work plan.

It was Larry Agran’s initial letter to Governor Brown in August, 2015, that started the back-and-forth cascade of email and phone communications between a DTSC official in Sacramento and me.  It ended six months later with that unexpected, but gratifying March 2nd letter and orders.  It turned out that those orders were based on a report by a highly competent DTSC Senior Geologist, Dan Gallagher, CHG, who reviewed anew the appropriate documents and the Preliminary Environmental Assessment (PEA) submitted in 2014 to gain the DDTSC’s approval of the school site.   He came to a different conclusion from that of PlaceWorks, the environmental consulting firm hired by IUSD to prepare the PEA for approval.

IUSD Board meeting/Public Hearing on Tuesday, March 22nd

Since the arrival of that March 2nd letter, the question that remained unanswered was how Director Lee’s letter and orders would be implemented.  That was answered when the IUSD scheduled a Special Board Meeting/Public Hearing on the evening of March 22nd to address that issue.   The IUSD had already prepared a work plan for testing the interior of the school site for the toxic Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, naphthalene, xylene, etc., deep in the soil.   These had been found along the perimeter of the site but not tested for in the interior.  That March 22nd meeting, which at times turned tempestuous, was attended by an enthusiastic and engaged crowd of over 100 residents filling every seat of the expanded Board room, as well as by DTSC officials, IUSD staff and consultants.   

At that meeting, the IUSD’s work plan was presented, proposing locations for ten new soil-gas test wells to test for toxic VOCs.  In fact, we were told that the plan had called for only eight such test wells until shortly before the meeting when two more were added, so the new starting point for test wells at the meeting was now ten.

However, attached to the evening’s agenda was a schedule that indicated that the work plan would be submitted to the DTSC the very next day.  It was hard to imagine that whatever was said during the Public Hearing could possibly have any effect, unless the Board and staff were planning on working through the night.  And, besides, in that case the community and stakeholders would have no input before the final work plan was submitted, as Director Lee’s letter ordered.

More than two dozen community members spoke during their allotted three minutes, almost all demanding that the Board require even more testing than the proposed 10 wells.  In the ensuing discussion that involved only DTSC officials, the Board, IUSD staff, and IUSD’s environmental consultant, the same misinformation and misleading information was rehashed.   Questions raised by the audience in their 3-minute comments and captured by the Board and superintendent were being persistently, wrongly answered or evaded.   Finally, the restive audience could take it no longer and the meeting became raucous.  School Board President Bokota called a ten-minute recess, after which the entire tone of the discussion changed.  It was then obvious to all that the Board and the DTSC would not be able to sell the 10 test-well proposal to the public.  They would have to do more, and considerably more. 

The four-hour meeting finally sputtered to an end without any conclusion, except that there seemed to be general agreement by all parties that a new work plan would be prepared that would include more than 10 test wells, probably somewhere between 10 and 20.

Inquiries About the Work Plan Begin the Next Day

Beginning the very next day, I began inquiring of the IUSD and the DTSC about the status of the work plan, how I could get a copy of it, and also how I could participate in its development.  On Friday, April 1st, I received a phone call from DTSC Senior Geologist Dan Gallagher, who arrived back in Sacramento after his trip to Southern California.  He told me he had a revised soil-gas test well sampling location map, now with 16 test wells.  He would email it to me shortly afterward.  He also mentioned that the soil-gas sampling of the additional wells would begin “next week,” while I believe he said that sampling of the initial 10 test wells had already begun.

What remains to be done? 

Unfortunately, the fear is that our effort is now beginning anew, and resident involvement is still critical for two reasons:

First, the public has little confidence in IUSD’s environmental firm, PlaceWorks, that brought us to this point by mischaracterizing the school site as historically a farm when the original PEA was submitted to the DTSC for their approval in 2014.  In fact, the site appears to have been used by military operations, including the dumping of fuels and solvents.  Now, at this late “date,” this same firm, with its lack of credibility, is being asked to oversee the soil-gas testing of the site’s interior.

Second, the March 2nd directive from DTSC Director Lee requires preparation of “risk estimates for exposure to subsurface contaminants to both students and faculty” [and staff].  This crucial report of risk estimates determines whether the site is acceptably safe or not, and involves various calculations according to widely-used risk models.

Such a risk analysis was performed for the original approval of the school site, and was included in the 2014 PEA submitted by the IUSD to the DTSC.  Although I’m not an expert in the use of the risk model(s) employed, the input data I reviewed seems wrong.  Specifically, there is a table that lists “Frequency of Detection,” and the number of test wells used to compute frequency is 16.   However, six of those sixteen wells were drilled along a fuel pipeline, on top of which it seems extremely unlikely military personnel would have dumped their drums of dirty solvents.  That those test wells showed no detectable VOCs means that the pipeline never leaked, but should be left out of any risk computation since this was a known, uncontaminated area.

In addition, two of those 16 wells were only tested for methane and hydrogen sulfide, adding no information regarding the other nasty VOCs.  Thus, that “Frequency of Detection” column should have used 8 rather than 16 as the total number of test wells to be considered for the risk analysis.  I also question how a few soil-gas test wells at the perimeter of the site could possibly provide any indication at all of the risk in the interior of the site.


Finally, the March 2nd letter is absolutely clear in its intent and direction that the community and stakeholders must be involved every step of the way.  And now it’s abundantly clear why that would have to be the case.  If significant contamination is reported in the interior of the school site, that would also potentially affect the safety of the homes proposed to be built immediately adjacent to the school site.  While the health of tens of thousands of future occupants of the school are at stake, sales of hundreds of millions of dollars of homes could be impacted.  In the face of these competing forces, one wonders how vulnerable the process of the school site’s soil-gas testing and risk estimate preparation might be to bias or even tampering.

Given that the original assessment of the school site was so thoroughly defective, and the original risk estimate appears so suspect to even an informed outsider, what confidence could anyone have in both the new testing plan, and a new risk analysis overseen by the very same people and executed by the very same firm that brought us to this point?

Finally, Irvine is a community blessed by highly educated residents, and a university with a highly respected environmental sciences department, all of whom have been outrageously excluded from offering their vast expertise.

If IUSD continues down this path of exclusion, and continues to employ PlaceWorks, I suspect that nothing will have been achieved regarding assuring the public that the school site is safe.

*Brief Biography

Dr. Liss holds a Ph.D. in Applied Mechanics, and was formerly an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering and Applied Mechanics at Stevens Institute of Technology, in Hoboken, NJ. He is a California licensed Professional Civil Engineer, and was project engineer for Irvine’s Village of Woodbridge, NE Quadrant and South Half, from 1975 to 1977.  He has lived in the ViIllage of Woodbridge since 1976.

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