Norberto Santana, Jr.

A pioneering leader in the nation’s rising nonprofit news movement and an award-winning investigative journalist. Santana has established Voice of OC as Orange County’s civic news leader, covering Southern California governments for more than two decades and reporting on Congress and Latin America. Subscribe now to receive his latest columns by email.

It took until about midnight on Thursday for Tustin city officials to finally respond to press inquiries and tell their residents what many already suspected.

There’s asbestos in the gunk that’s been flying around town for two days from the historic military hangar that started burning in the early morning hours of Tuesday.

Ironically, the midnight announcement came about the same time as the fire started, two days earlier. 

For parents who might be reading this column in the morning, all Tustin Unified schools are closed. Same goes for a host of city parks. 

Irvine Unified schools are staying open.

“We just received official notice from the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) that its testing of the north hangar fire debris and ash has identified the presence of asbestos,” said Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard in a press release he kindly forwarded to me in the early hours of Thursday morning, nearly a day after I jumped in my Jeep and drove into Tustin to meet with a host of local residents who had smartly alerted the newsroom to asbestos concerns right away.

As always, the people were spot on and ahead of their public agencies, but it took days for those public agencies to answer any of their questions on whether or not a carcinogen was in the air around their homes.  

“I know this is not surprising to many who understood the materials used in construction and the period of time in which the hangars were built,” Lumbard wrote in his email to me, “But it is certainly not the news we wanted.”

Yet it’s exactly the kind of news that many residents needed to hear much earlier from the host of public agencies charged with protecting public safety. 

Credit: Tustin Police Instagram

“As a resident of Greenwood whose parents live in Columbus Square, this is a personal matter to me as well,” Mayor Lumbard wrote. “And as parents of five children – three at Heritage and one at LMA – my wife and I share your concerns and frustration regarding the speed of information becoming available (including not being able to provide this information until now).”  

“While it is difficult not to jump to conclusions and to allow the responsible government agencies to do their jobs in due course, we also expect transparency and quickness of information when possible,” he continued. 

“Ultimately, the City of Tustin has no role in the debris and air testing and has to rely on the expert advice of AQMD who just provided the preliminary information to us late tonight. We as a City are acting as quickly as the facts become available to us and will continue to do so.”

Public Agencies Fail to Inform In Early Hours

Yet again and again, we keep finding that during critical disasters – like Covid, wildfires or oil spills – our local public agencies do a horrible job of informing the public in real time during emergencies. 

[Read: Failure to Communicate: Orange County Wildfires Highlight Long Standing Emergency Communication Problems]

Public safety agencies just don’t invest enough in informing the public and leave these offices consistently under-resourced, something that they get away with on most days…until there’s a disaster. 

Every time there’s a disaster in Orange County, press conferences take a long time to organize, are short with few questions taken and there’s limited social media outreach, much less an expert for concerned residents to reach out and talk to or any kind of town halls or public forums. 

Throughout my interviews in Tustin, I kept hearing the same story again and again Wednesday about how public agencies just kept referring concerned residents all over the place, back and forth between the same agencies with no substantive updates on what was happening.

People were bounced between the City of Tustin, to the Tustin PD, to the OC Fire Authority, to the Southern California Air Quality Management District, to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, to the county Health Care Agency, and back again.

Residents Go Looking for Information

“Has any of this stuff been tested for asbestos?” is the main question that Tustin resident Derek Bocard, 42,  and others were asking all over town, without getting any answers. 

Bocard was out walking his dog when a neighbor started pointing out all the debris, which prompted him to go home, do some online research and call the local news.

I met him on his front lawn a few hours after he emailed our newsroom. 

Given his own decades experience as an industrial hygienist, Bocard said asbestos isn’t something to ignore. 

“It’s not so much the stuff you can see that is a concern,” he said. “You don’t know the airborne concentration until you test.”

I joined him and many other residents scrambling all day Wednesday trying to get answers to those questions. 

Yet again and again, our public agencies treat the press and by extension, the public, with total disdain and a stunning lack of engagement. 

The public information office at the OC Fire Authority referred reporters to a barely updated Twitter feed with few operational details. 

When I pressed a fire authority public information officer for details about the decision to stop putting water on the fire and whether asbestos concerns were taken into account at the time, I was shut down and referred back to their stale Twitter feed. 

City Council Receives Public Update

A view of Tustin City Hall on Nov. 17, 2022.

One gracious Tustin city employee kindly referred me to Tuesday night’s city council meeting where the OCFA incident commander gave a very informative update to city council members – something a PIO could have easily done. 

According to that update, firefighters didn’t have success with helicopters dropping water on the hangars and given its size couldn’t get close enough with ground units, so a decision was made to let the building burn.

It’s not clear whether there was planning for the asbestos debris that residents would later see in nearby neighborhoods. 

Officials with the Southern California Air Quality Management District also didn’t engage at all with any questions about what they were doing or advice for residents in the midst of the debris field. 

While the AQMD issued a health warning about smoke on Tuesday, it made no reference to even the potential threat of asbestos, despite multiple reports that highlighted the building’s high asbestos content as an issue from both the city of Tustin and the county grand jury. 

I was able to reach Tustin City Councilwoman Leticia Clark, who answered her phone on the first ring. 

Like many local officials, Clark was very supportive of public safety and the air quality agencies. 

She noted city officials were relying on the experts – places like AQMD, the local police department, the OC Fire Authority  – which “all have the best interests of the public in mind,” she said. 

“From my experience, if there was any danger or hazard or concern, these organizations would make it known,” Clark said. 

Agencies Take Days to Confirm Asbestos

Credit: OC Fire Authority

Yet it took AQMD almost until midnight Thursday to confirm what one Tustin resident I spoke with – who didn’t want to be identified by name – confirmed by 3 p.m. after taking a piece of debris from her driveway to a private lab, which she said confirmed asbestos. 

County Supervisor’s Chairman Don Wagner – who defended the county’s outreach – said health care agency officials put out a statement around noon after the winds acted up, warning people about air quality. 

At the time, Wagner said officials “don’t know what’s in that ash that’s coming down.”

Yet again, that’s something that local residents – who had read recent grand jury reports on the hangars – already knew about and again, alerted our newsroom to. 

“An investigation and assessment of the historic South Hangar, conducted in September 2017 by consultants to the City of Tustin, indicated potential hazardous materials within the structure,” the grand jury wrote. “The hazardous materials identified were asbestos, lead, biological contaminants, and groundwater contaminates which may result in vapor intrusion issues.” 

Wagner did note that given the fire, the entire future of the hangar area and the mitigation for the fire is something that will put a hard focus on U.S. Navy clean up efforts on the former military base. 

To date, that process has been a confusing potpourri of local, county, state and federal agencies that haven’t done a very effective job of engaging the public on the future of hangar areas, much less get environmental clean up done. 

We’ve had Chapman University students looking into the Tustin hangars for some time and they have run into an absolute disarray of delay and obfuscation by officials who refuse to talk much about the environmental issues associated with the former Marine Air base. 

In his late night note, Mayor Lumbard acknowledged those students aren’t alone. 

“To those who have expressed that something should have been done with the hangar property long ago, the City actually shares your frustrations,” he wrote. 

“Ultimately, however, the Navy owns the property, the cranes holding up the north end of the hangar for the last ten years are the Navy’s, and we will be demanding the Navy’s immediate attention and resources are provided for site cleanup and further demolition.” 

Cleanup and mitigation is the immediate action at hand,” he continued. “Long term planning of the site is for another day.”


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