View Full Version : A Quarter of El Toro May Be Tainted

06-06-04, 12:21 PM
A Quarter of El Toro May Be Tainted

The findings could form hurdles for interested developers, complicate plans for the Great Park. Irvine, Navy say the project is on track.

By Daniel Yi and Jean O. Pasco, Times Staff Writers

After years of study, state and federal officials have concluded that about one-quarter of the former El Toro Marine base cannot be immediately sold to developers because of concerns over toxic contamination, recently released documents show.

The findings could complicate efforts to turn the 4,700-acre former airfield into the Orange County Great Park a mix of homes, recreational facilities, offices and park land some observers say. But officials in the Navy and the city of Irvine, which annexed the base last year, insist the project remains on track.

The contaminated or potentially polluted acreage, spread throughout the property, will be leased not sold to developers who will be limited in what they can do with this land.

Because it is still unclear what the restrictions will be, developers will have a difficult time calculating their investment risks, said Greg Hurley, an environmental attorney working with several potential bidders.

"All of a sudden, the developer has doughnut holes in the middle of the property," said Hurley, who added that developers may be more reluctant to bid. "It's not a safety issue for the community, but it becomes a straight-up fiscal issue."

The auction of the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station has drawn attention from federal officials because the military hopes to use the facility as a model for selling other closed bases in the country.

The site had been mired in controversy for nearly a decade as the county debated whether to turn it into a commercial airport. Voters finally opted for parks and homes instead in 2002.

Since then, the Navy has been moving toward auctioning the land. The base was divided into four parcels, which Irvine has zoned for 3,625 homes, 3 million square feet of commercial and industrial space, and 2,800 acres of parks and public facilities. An additional 1,000 acres have been reserved for a wildlife preserve.

But decades of military operation has tainted the soil. Federal and state environmental officials have deemed that 995 acres in areas planned for development should be cleaned or tested further for contaminants such as petroleum byproducts, metals and solvents.

Federal law prohibits the Navy from selling any land that is or might be contaminated. Of the four parcels slated for auction, only one has been cleared to be sold in its entirety a 202-acre lot in the base's southeast corner that is zoned for 1.6-million square feet of research and development space, an industrial park and a 34-acre expansion of the Irvine Auto Center.

Developers who buy the other three parcels will take title to the clean land and lease the hot spots and suspected hot spots with the understanding that they will take ownership once the property is cleared of environmental concerns.

The auction will begin later this year with the 202-acre parcel going first. The plan to sell all the parcels at once has been dropped while the Navy clarifies the lease restrictions.

There is no timeline for when the other parcels will be auctioned, said Lee Saunders, a Navy spokesman. But the restrictions on the carved-out portions should be spelled out further before bids are solicited.

Most of the restrictions will focus on developers not interfering with cleanup efforts, said Andy Piszkin, the Navy's environmental coordinator for El Toro.

Developers also will be restricted from doing anything that could expose anyone to contamination, and they would be forbidden from "making anything worse," Piszkin said.

But "if someone wants to come out and say, 'We want to put a road ,' we will work with them," he said. "We'll see how their development will impact our ability to close out that little site where we are doing work."

Most of the known pollution involves solvents that have seeped underground, he said, and should not affect construction above ground.

Local developers aren't commenting publicly, but Hurley said the Navy's assurances may not be enough to assuage potential bidders' concerns. "The devil is in the details."

It is unclear how and when the contamination will be cleaned, Hurley said, as well as who will be responsible for undetected contamination that might surface after development. He suggested that proceeds from selling the base be set aside to fund the cleanup.

Some real estate experts estimate the base could fetch $800 million to $1.2 billion. The money is earmarked for a federal fund to pay for cleanup of closed U.S. military bases, not just El Toro.

Piszkin said the concerns are overblown. "There is a misconception that there is rampant contamination in El Toro." Most areas of suspected contamination have turned up clean, he said, and cleanup operations are ongoing.

Even the base's 900 acres of runways which some observers predicted were hiding dangerous chemicals after decades of use were found clear of major contamination, Piszkin said. The Navy tested on two ends of a runway and nothing was found, he said.

The largest area of contamination is in the 775-acre parcel on the south end of the base. About half of the land sits atop a sprawling plume of contaminated groundwater, and whoever buys the parcel will have to lease the contaminated portion. The parcel is zoned for 1,500 homes, 150,000 square feet of commercial buildings and a 165-acre sports park, among other developments.

Piszkin said those plans shouldn't run afoul of lease restrictions as long as the developments do not pump the underground water.

"You certainly should be able to build a sports park," he said.

The plume is contaminated with trichloroethylene, or TCE, a cleaning solvent. Cleanup operations will start sometime in summer 2006 through the Irvine Ranch Water District. Drinking or breathing TCE can cause nervous system disorders, liver and lung damage.

Irvine officials said they are confident the leased portions and cleanup operations will not interfere with their plans to have most of the Orange County Great Park built within five years of the last parcel being sold, which they estimate will happen by the end of next year.