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Report: Fourth of Old O.C. Base May Be Polluted

The findings at El Toro could form hurdles for interested developers, complicate Great Park.

June 06, 2004|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 parkland -- 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 already been reserved for a wildlife preserve.

But decades of military operation have 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.

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.

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.

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 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.

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