Homes on top of the former Tustin Air Force Base may have toxic groundwater
Tustin residents watched in horror last week as one of two remaining hangars from the former Tustin Marine Corps Air Station burned down, throwing 80-year-old asbestos into the air that local health agencies didn’t report to them for days.
(is reading:Santana: There was asbestos in the wreckage of the burned Tustin barn)
But this isn’t the first time public agencies have failed to inform Tustin residents of the health risks of living next to a former Naval Air Force base.
An investigation by Voice of OC found that the US Navy sent identical letters to three homeowners associations near the base in November 2021, informing them That the groundwater beneath their homes could be contaminated with toxic runoff from the base and they plan to conduct further studies.
Editor’s note: This mission is part of Voice of the OC Collective News Service, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
But those letters never made it into the hands of dozens of residents Voice of OC spoke with, and in multiple cases, homeowners’ associations denied receiving the letters in the first place or wouldn’t speak up about them.
City leaders They have largely avoided talking about the issue, saying it is not their responsibility to clean the base and that the drinking water is safe because it is imported from the Irvine Ranch Water District.
Two years after those letters, it is still unclear how contaminated the ground beneath those homes is because the Navy has not finished its studies, leaving more than 10,000 residents living on and adjacent to the base in the dark about whether their groundwater is safe.
What was thrown at the base?
Navy letters warned residents that their groundwater may be contaminated with polyfluoroalkyl substances Or PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” because they take a long time to break down.
These chemicals are linked to cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and an increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease, according to the CDC.
“The Navy has identified at least one (Area of Concern) located on or near your property. While there are no known immediate risks to human health or the environment,” Kyle Olyonyk, the Navy’s then-Navy environmental coordinator for base realignment and closure, wrote in the letter “The Navy is proactively investigating ‘areas of interest.’” “To this end, the Navy is currently preparing action plans that outline the initial soil investigation and additional groundwater investigation.”
To read the full message, click here.
The letter came after the Navy was sued in 2019 because it withheld documents about how bad the pollution was.
Sampling for Forever Chemicals began at the site in 2017.
People can be exposed to the chemicals forever by drinking exposed water or ingesting contaminated soil, according to the CDC. Long-term exposure can lead to many types of cancer, along with health consequences for children and fetuses.
Christopher Kim, a professor and environmental geochemist at Chapman University, has forever described the chemicals as “controlled chemicals” that have “documented adverse health outcomes in humans.”
He continued: “Levels above regulatory limits represent a potential risk to residents, although the degree of risk depends on their actions.”
There is also no doubt about whether chemicals were dumped at the base, including through burn pits, storage tank leaks, and things like leftover jet fuel being dumped over the side of the runway.
“The general practice has been to dump the material on the ground, bury it, or in recent years dispose of it in burn pits,” said Dennis Binder, a Chapman professor of environmental law.
Who is responsible for the cleaning process?
Tustin leaders claim they are not responsible for any of the cleanup and are waiting for the Navy to put their house in order.
“The city is not a leader in the remediation of the former MCAS Tustin,” Kenneth Biggie, a senior management analyst at Tustin, said in a December 2022 email, saying the responsibility for cleanup falls to the Navy. “The city is reviewing all reports and action plans.”
An August 2022 report from Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Southwest showed groundwater contamination levels far exceed safe levels set by the federal government at several sites at the former naval base.
Despite the report, Navy officials said they had no idea how widespread groundwater contamination was beyond the base.
Officials also don’t have a specific date by which they will finish taking water samples.
The Navy is awaiting approval of the proposed work plan, which primarily includes drilling new groundwater wells, taking additional groundwater samples, taking preliminary soil samples, and assessing the environmental risks that chemicals could pose in perpetuity.
They hope to begin implementing the plan in late 2024.
Off-base groundwater sampling is not in the current work plan proposal.
The Navy follows CERCLA regulations, an EPA law that establishes response procedures for hazardous substances released into the environment.
Forever Chemicals is not currently a controlled substance under the law, but is expected to be added in 2024, Navy spokeswoman Elizabeth Ruddy wrote in a statement.
Although the chemicals are known to contaminate groundwater in the area, the drinking water serving the communities comes from the Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) and does not contain detectable levels of these chemicals.
Who was he supposed to tell the residents?
Since the base closed in 1999, most of the land it was on has been converted into various housing developments, dubbed the Tustin Legacy Project.
None of the dozens of neighborhood residents interviewed by Voice of OC recalled receiving the November 2021 letter from the Navy.
Navy officials did not tell residents directly, instead sending a warning letter to three homeowners associations — Columbus Square, Greenwood and Anton Legacy — which are all located on the site of the former base.
None of the directors of these districts admitted to obtaining it in interviews.
Holly Dawson, director of Columbus Square, declined to say whether the homeowners association received the letter or distributed it to its residents, but Voice of OC confirmed that the warning about the land still being processed was present in a homebuyer disclosure early in 2008.
Nathan Streeter, a Greenwood employee, said the person to whom the Navy’s 2021 letter was directed left the company in 2019. The Navy apparently sent the letter to an email address that had not been in use for two years.
Streiter said he had no knowledge that any of his colleagues had ever received information related to the chemicals in forever.
No one at Anton Legacy knew anything about this case.
The City of Tustin has one page on its website about the cleanup.
Navy-led meetings discussing the issue of cleaning up chemicals in perpetuity are announced on the Navy’s website and in both the LA Times and OC Register. Meetings are held twice a year at the Tustin Senior Center.
Despite this announcement, Patricia Hannon, director of the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, has mentioned few, if any, residents at previous meetings.
The Navy will not contact homeowners directly unless samples need to be taken from their property, according to Navy spokesperson Elizabeth Ruddy and remedial project manager Chris Ota.
The soonest they can expect to notify landlords is spring 2024, Ota said.
How did local leaders respond?
After the barn fire, Orange County’s political center sprang into action.
Tustin Mayor Austin Lombard called on the Navy to clean up the wreckage immediately.
“We will demand the Navy’s immediate attention and resources to clean up the site and conduct further demolition operations,” Lombard wrote in a statement last Wednesday.
County Supervisor Don Wagner, chairman of the board and Tustin’s representative, declared a countywide state of emergency due to the fire.
Ten representatives, including Tustin Congresswoman Young Kim, sent a letter to the Navy demanding answers about the barn fire and asking residents to be informed what is being done to clean up the debris.
But when they were repeatedly asked about issues related to groundwater, the response was much different.
The city manager, city clerk, and every city council member outside of the mayor didn’t talk about it. Kim declined to respond to repeated requests for information, and Assemblywoman Cutie Petrie Norris had no comment.
Starting in February, Chapman students have called and emailed the City Manager six times, the City Clerk five times, City Council members three or four times each, Rep. Kim six times, Assemblyman Petrie Norris three times, and State Senator Dave Minn four times . .
Those who responded, including Tustin Communications Director Stephanie Najera and Rudy, failed to identify any impending plans to inform residents directly about the presence of dangerous chemicals under their property.
Wagner said the county has nothing to do with the case, but they are “monitoring” the situation.
Lombard did not respond to 13 requests for comment over the past year, but he agreed to speak about the issue Monday afternoon in the wake of the ongoing North Barn Fire, adding that he was aware of the issue when he purchased a home in Columbus Square and another in Greenwood from developers.
While he praised the city’s web page on the issue, he said it was not their responsibility to inform homeowners, and when the city approved development on or near the former base, they did so away from the worst sites of contamination.
“But at the end of the day, that’s the Navy’s commitment, and once it’s owned by a developer, that’s their commitment as well,” Lombard said. “I was fully informed and the builders I bought my house from have fully disclosed it.”
He also noted that he never received an HOA letter from the Navy.
“Our developers are very transparent about the hazards in the soil and what is or is not prohibited,” he said. “Perhaps there is room for more contacts on the Navy front.”
Jessica Goodrich contributed to this article.
Since I’ve come this far,
You clearly care about local news and appreciate good journalism. Help us become 100% reader funded with a tax-deductible donation. For as little as $5 a month, you can help us achieve this goal.