Tustin residents watched in horror last week as one of the two hangars left from former Marine Corps Air Station Tustin burned to the ground, dumping 80-year-old asbestos into the air that local health agencies didn’t notify them about for days.
But this isn’t the first time public agencies have failed to inform Tustin residents about the health dangers of living next to a former marine air base.
A Voice of OC investigation found the U.S. Navy sent out identical letters to three homeowners associations near the base in Nov. 2021, notifying them that the groundwater under their homes could be contaminated with toxic runoff from the base and that they planned to do more studies.
Editors’ Note: This dispatch is part of the Voice of OC Collegiate News Service, working with student journalists to cover public policy issues across Orange County. If you would like to submit your own student media project related to Orange County civics or if you have any response to this work, contact email@example.com.
But those letters never actually made it into the hands of dozens of residents who Voice of OC spoke with, and in multiple cases the homeowners associations deny ever receiving the letters in the first place or won’t speak about them.
City leaders have largely avoided talking about the issue, saying it’s not their responsibility to clean up the base and that the drinking water is safe because it’s imported from the Irvine Ranch Water District.
Two years after those letters, it’s still unclear how contaminated the land under those homes is because the Navy hasn’t finished their studies, leaving over 10,000 residents living on and next to the base in the dark on whether or not their groundwater is safe.
What Was Dumped at the Base?
The letters from the Navy warned residents their groundwater could be contaminated with polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” because they take so long to break down.
Those chemicals are associated with cancer, liver damage, decreased fertility, and increased risk of asthma and thyroid disease, according to the Center for Disease Control.
“The Navy has identified at least one (area of interest) that is located on or near your property. While there are no known immediate risks to human health or the environment, the Navy is proactively investigating (areas of interest),” wrote Kyle Olewnik, the then-Base Realignment and Closure Environmental Coordinator for the Navy, in the letter. “To that end, the Navy is currently preparing work plans outlining the initial investigation of soil and additional investigation of groundwater.”
To read the full letter, click here.
The letter came after the Navy was sued in 2019 because it withheld documents about how bad the contamination was.
Sampling for forever chemicals at the site began in 2017.
People can be exposed to forever chemicals by drinking exposed water or swallowing contaminated soil according to the CDC. Long-term exposure can lead to various cancers, alongside health consequences for children and fetuses.
Christopher Kim, a professor and environmental geochemist at Chapman University, described forever chemicals as “regulated chemicals” that “have documented adverse health outcomes in humans.”
“Levels above regulatory limits,” he continued, “Represent a potential risk to residents, although the degree of risk depends on their actions.”
There’s also no question on if chemicals were dumped at the base, including through burn pits, storage tank leaks and just dumping things like leftover jet fuel over the side of the runway.
“The general practice was to dump the substances on the ground, bury them, or in more recent years dispose of them in burn pits,” said Chapman Environmental Law Professor Denis Binder.
Who’s In Charge of the Cleanup?
Tustin leaders claim they’re not responsible for any of the cleanup and are waiting on the Navy to get their house in order.
“The City is not the lead on remediation at former MCAS Tustin,” said Tustin senior management analyst Kenneth Piguee in a Dec. 2022 email, saying clean-up responsibility was on the Navy. “The City reviews all reports and work plans.”
An August 2022 report from Naval Facilities Engineering Systems Command Southwest showed groundwater contamination levels far exceeding safe levels set by the federal government at several locations on the former Marine base.
Despite the report, Navy officials said they have no idea how much groundwater pollution has spread outside of the base’s footprint.
Officials also don’t have a firm date by which they’ll finish sampling the water.
The Navy is awaiting approval of a proposed work plan that involves primarily drilling new groundwater wells, taking additional groundwater samples, taking initial soil samples, and assessing the ecological risk forever chemicals could pose.
They hope to start 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 act that outlines procedures for responding to hazardous substances released into the environment.
Forever chemicals are currently not a controlled substance under the act, but are expected to be added in 2024, wrote Navy spokesperson Elizabeth Roddy in a statement.
Although the chemicals are known to be contaminating the groundwater in the area, the drinking water servicing the communities comes from Irvine Ranch Water District (IRWD) and contains no detectable levels of these chemicals.
Who Was Supposed to Tell the Residents?
Since the base’s closure in 1999, most of the land it sat on has been converted into various housing developments, dubbed the Tustin Legacy project.
Not one of the dozens of residents Voice of OC interviewed in neighborhoods recalled receiving Nov. 2021 letter from the Navy.
Navy officials didn’t tell residents directly, instead sending a warning letter to three homeowners associations – Columbus Square, Greenwood and Anton Legacy – which all sit on the site of the former base.
None of the managers of these neighborhoods acknowledge having received it in interviews.
Columbus Square Manager Holly Dawson refused to say whether her homeowners’ association received or distributed the letter to its residents, but Voice of OC confirmed warning about the land being still in remediation was in the homebuyers disclosure as early as 2008.
Greenwood staff member Nathan Straiter said the person to whom the Navy’s 2021 letter was addressed left the company in 2019. It appears that the Navy sent the letter to an email address that hadn’t been in use for two years.
Straiter said he has no knowledge of any of his colleagues having ever received information regarding the forever chemicals.
No one at Anton Legacy knew anything about the issue.
The city of Tustin has one page on their website about the cleanup.
Navy-led meetings discussing forever chemicals cleanup are advertised on the Navy’s website and in both the LA Times and OC Register. The meetings are held twice a year at the Tustin Senior Center.
Despite this advertising, Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board Manager Patricia Hannon recalled only a couple of residents, if any, at previous meetings.
The Navy will not contact homeowners directly unless there is a need to sample on their property according to Navy spokesperson Elizabeth Roddy and Remedial Project Manager Chris Ota.
Ota said the earliest they can expect to notify property owners is spring of 2024.
How Did Local Leaders Respond?
After the hangar fire, Orange County’s political core swung into action.
Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard called on the Navy to immediately clean up the wreckage.
“We will be demanding the Navy’s immediate attention and resources are provided for site cleanup and further demolition,” Lumbard wrote in a statement last Wednesday.
County Supervisor Don Wagner, chair of the board and Tustin’s representative, declared a countywide state of emergency over the fire.
Ten representatives, including Tustin’s Congresswoman Young Kim, sent a letter to the Navy demanding answers on the hangar fire and asking for residents to be informed what was being done to clean up the debris.
But when asked repeatedly about the issues with groundwater, it was a much different response.
The city manager, the city clerk and every city council member outside the mayor wouldn’t speak on it. Kim refused to respond to repeated requests for information, and Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris had no comment.
Starting in February, Chapman students 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, Assemblymember Petrie-Norris three times, and state Senator Dave Min four times.
Those who did respond, including Tustin Communications Manager Stephanie Najera and Roddy, failed to identify any imminent plans to directly inform residents about the presence of dangerous chemicals beneath their property.
Wagner said the county has nothing to do with the issue, but that they are “monitoring” the situation.
Lumbard didn’t respond to 13 requests for comment over the past year, but agreed to speak to the issue on Monday afternoon in the wake of the ongoing north hangar fire, adding that he’d been made aware of the issue when he purchased a home in Columbus Square and another in Greenwood from developers.
While he praised the city’s webpage about the issue, he said it wasn’t their responsibility to inform homeowners, and that when the city approved developments on or near the former base they did it away from the worst of the pollution sites.
“But ultimately it’s the Navy’s obligation and once it’s owned by a developer it’s their obligation as well,” Lumbard said. “I was fully informed and the builders I purchased my home from fully disclosed it.”
He also noted that he had never received the HOA letter from the Navy.
“Our developers are very transparent about the risks in the soil and what’s prohibited or not,” he said. “There’s probably room for further communication on the Navy’s front.”
Jessica Goodrich contributed to the reporting of this article.
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