By Roger Bütow
“You cain’t fix stupid. Stupid is forever.” - Redneck comedian Ron White
The Village Entrance Project (VEP) is arguably stupid squared. UC Irvine and other nationally acclaimed seismic experts joined by many resident engineers here in town believe that it won’t stand forever, let alone 25 years. “Stupid” is scheduled to roll into town nonetheless, and will probably arrive before we pay down the red ink anyway.
“Stupid is as stupid does” fits our autocratic City Council members who want this to a “T.” Whenever I try to explain the “Hows” and “Whys” of this beast, the first thing that locals say to me is “But that’s stupid!”
One question I keep asking that no one has answered on either side of the dispute: What is the life expectancy of this project as stated by the City at hearings? How long is it supposed to function, to last and serve its continuous, intended multiple purposes? They went on record regarding the Marine Safety Headquarters, why not for this much more expensive one?
“Why” is an important word in assessing burning issues: Does anyone know why none of our local engineering firms was hired for the FEIR? They know this town, its soil, drainage patterns, topography and geology best. Maybe they were approached but didn’t want any part of it? Mark Twain said: “We have the best government that money can buy,” but local firms with residing families are not market priced for quick sale like municipalities and politicians are.
The words “remediation” and “mitigation” are being bandied about (finally) but perhaps the majority of locals need a primer or brush up course that addresses the VEP specifically.
Environmental remediation deals with the removal of pollution or contaminants from environmental media such as soil, groundwater, sediment or surface water for the protection of human health, the general environment, adverse ecological conditions, and includes prescriptive restraints from a site intended for redevelopment.
Remediation of such large sites as the VEP is generally subject to a vast array of regulatory requirements plus multiple (sometimes intentionally overlapping and/or redundant) jurisdictions. Remediation accomplishments can even be based on assessments of human health and ecological risks where no legislated standards exist or where standards are advisory only.
In California, the Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) is one the empowered regulatory oversight agencies, including specific waste disposal strategies when and where contaminants are found.
Regulatory assessments along with local lead agency information involve proven remediation and/or mitigation choices. They must be disclosed, addressed as early as possible in the environmental review process so that public stakeholders can provide concerned, focused and precise testimony, thus make refined, adequately informed and effective comments.
Mr. Al Shami, Project Manager, California Department of Toxic Substances Control, Environmental Restoration Program wrote a letter of concern back on November 18, 2010, but as the Revised FEIR gave so little information up front, his comments were limited and generalized. This is a prime example of the City withholding or low-balling existent contamination (or suspicion thereof), putting off recognition of historical pollutant depositions residing in the soil and groundwater table.
Added is the glaring absence of the usual public watchdog stakeholder comments. This initially confused me and I suppose there’s a case to be made that City Hall has attempted to perform a revisited strategy used for the now-deceased flood control project of about 13 years ago: Perform little if any due diligence, downplay potential substances that would require disclosures leading to more inspection (not to mention enormous costs), barely mention it in the FEIR process, ring no bells or alarms with regulatory agency staffs, cross your fingers and hope onsite contamination flies under radar screens. Once the FEIR is ratified, THEN break ground and like a piñata, deal with what’s inside afterwards.
Here’s the link to another site that is germane, California’s Proposition 65 Chemicals List (July 2013). It’s a result of the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986 and is administered by Cal/EPA Environmental Health. Many of these substances have already been noted as present (or possibly so) at the proposed VEP site:
Though initially intended to protect drinking water supplies, its role has been expanded due to the aggressive recycling and reclamation mechanisms of an increasingly thirsty, yet under-supplied population. Much of potentially recyclable wastewater is in fact damaged goods that shouldn’t be re-used.
Some wastewater gets harvested for advanced treatment (tertiary) or blended with existing supplies. It’s eventually broadcast back into the environment as landscape water, so recycling might seem a good thing, but constitutes a continuous closed loop regarding re-introduction of banned substances. This is the equivalent of switching an IV drip nutrient bag with a hospital patient’s waste catheter. Ugh.
Pumping the VEP surface drainage excesses and groundwater, filtering and treating them, then depositing the detritus into our common wastewater system might not suffice as adequate or even legal mitigation for the associated State agencies. That’s because reduction to Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCL) is problematic in achieving regulatory restriction approval. The FEIR obliquely mentions that permits will be required but once again in vague, unspecific terms: Avoiding like the plague the mention of the incredible costs, logistics or difficulties in getting multiple State agency approvals.
Recently, Constituents of Emerging Concern (CECs) are on everyone’s radar screen. Many household products, pharmaceuticals, etc., wind up in the recycled system and are persistent, they cannot be reduced, removed or in no way discharged to receiving waters under the law. These CECs are being added to other regulatory lists for monitoring and analyses, eventual MCL determinations as science studies catch up to public health and safety negative impacts.
Keep in mind that there’s also the environmental impacts upon ecosystems, not just humans, when, after passing through waste treatment plants, the carcinogens are many times undigested by microbes, un-removed or reduced sufficiently. Then they’re discharged into the ocean via outfall pipes, in our case just a little more than a mile offshore of Aliso Creek County Beach.
Regulatory oversight of the assessment and remediation of properties on which there has been a release or incursions is mandated by law. Immigration and dispersion of hazardous materials to soil and/or groundwater requires advanced and careful planning by project advocates. At times this dynamic includes redevelopment of existing projects, including state, county and municipal public works capital improvement/modification proposals.
Regulators determine when and to what degree site cleanup is required to mitigate threats to public health and the environment. They decide when remediation and/or mitigation adequately reduce (or remove) contaminants below trigger levels of regulatory standards and compliance significance (like the previously mentioned MCLs).
They also assess to what degree structural components, health and safety measures and construction dynamics must moderate (a quality or condition) in force or intensity; proponents must alleviate, and/or make milder their adverse impacts both during and after installation. The project’s impacts must be “nil” or better than before construction.
The VEP has been impacted by acknowledged petroleum releases (Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons---POPs) into the aquifer. The soil and groundwater table from multiple sites called Underground Storage Tanks (UST), most of which leaked, then migrated below the Broadway/Forest Ave. corridor. The FEIR does minimally note but under-values “to be determined” carcinogenic contaminants like metals, asbestos, et al because some City facilities were built in the 1930s before EPA and government oversight existed.
The VEP is in the path of significant slope drainages, nuisance sloughing from impervious surfaces, low-flow (non-rainy) polluted waters from upstream, high or peak rainy flow flushing, but also significant volumes of subterranean immigration from Laguna Canyon Creek Watershed contributors. These have chronic, above regulatory compliance levels of manganese, iron, aluminum and chlorides according to City water quality sampling records.
One mustn’t ignore the fact that embarrassingly, the City had no knowledge of the former 2 pump gas station or attendant common dump behind it that existed for decades (20s—early 50s) where the frontage public parking is ensconced. Opposite sides of the flood control channel might therefore experience different remediation and mitigation requisites.
Doesn’t exactly leave you with a great deal of confidence regarding your City’s due diligence performance. If the Blacketer family hadn’t notified me of the history, who knows if the dump and gas station would have ever come to light? It’s a Richard Nixon-era redux: “What didn’t the City know and when didn’t they know it?”
So if we are using this as a candidate checklist, yes, the VEP site is a prime example for pre-emptive, in depth redevelopment and significant modification analyses purposes. There are in situ City facilities that include continuous impervious surfaces and edifices that will be removed and replaced. It will require cohesive, integrated strategies that include both remediation and then endless mitigation.
And though confusing to those not in related professional fields of endeavor, many times remediation isn’t enough, follow-up mitigations combine, complete or supplement the task of insuring the jurisdictionally-mandated levels of construction and post-construction protection. This project is very complicated, hence it’s “one of those times” folks.
The alluded to capture of groundwater, surface flows, onsite runoff, etc. in the FEIR fails to divulge just how complex that implementation can be. Under the newest NPDES Stormwater Permit, sometimes referred to for brevity as the MS4, there’ll need to be onsite detention of large volumes of polluted water and other detritus, some relatively coarse (see Level One analysis below).
Even sediment is considered a pollutant as contaminants accrete (attach, adhere and accumulate), and the sediment becomes a conveyance medium. We’re on the hook to reduce sediment transport and illegal polluted discharges up to significant rainy events, usually defined as .8 of an inch within a 24-hour period here in South OC.
One historical fact also hovers offstage in the wings: Our very own City Hall complex of offices. It’s glaringly, gloriously adjacent to the proposed conceptual VEP.
If memory serves, City Hall went through an extensive renovation back in the '90s or late '80s. What’s important for us is that they didn’t build a subterranean basement level, and didn’t erect a 3rd story either. Our City knew that was a geotechnical and groundwater table incursion nightmare mistake if pursued. Sometimes, it’s what’s not there that tells you the hidden truth.
Level One for the VEP will in fact be dedicated to City vehicles and storage, many for emergency purposes like fire, police and marine safety. It will be a repository for City Administrative archival information. It will also contain the a generator (or 2) in case of local power failure, one that services that groundwater intrusion and surface runoff subterranean cistern, wastewater filtration/reduction plus advanced treatment system and pumping infrastructure. Now readers of my previous columns comprehend my aversion to this project at this location. If this floor fails, we’re up a creek without a paddle.
When liquefaction occurs due to a significant seismic event long overdue from the San Joaquin Hills Blind Thrust (or any adjacent fault), Level One will first vibrate like a tuning fork and then probably pancake, flatten, collapse, whatever, undoubtedly catastrophically so.
For those who think that I’m making up the seismic concerns, a just-released study for the San Juan Basin Authority (SJBA) acknowledges the likelihood of this occurring in our region. Unlike similar scales that measures magnitude and energy released, the metric the SJBA consultants used attempts to describe effects.
The SJBA study acknowledges we’d get categorical “Destructive” (VIII) and possibly “Violent” (IX) level damages. Destructive would wreck havoc but not necessarily catastrophically so to well-built structures. Violent potential ramifications as listed could inflict significant damages even to well-built structures.
These Roman numeral designated categories should be additionally viewed and analyzed with the exponentially amplified, the increased adverse effects from liquefaction. Yet another issue not fully explained, analyzed or addressed in the VEP FEIR:
“According to the 2001 California Building Code (CBC), the SJBA boundary is in Seismic Zone 4. Seismic Zone 4 includes those areas that lie in a zone of major historic earthquakes (i.e. Mw magnitude greater than 7.0) and recent high levels of seismicity. Major damage, corresponding to intensities VIII or higher on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale, should be expected within this zone.”
[Source: SJBA Groundwater Management Plan (April 2013)]
[Authors: Mark Wildermuth Environmental, Inc.]
This Level One collapse would result in burying or at minimum making inaccessible, possibly destroying or obliterating, the very equipment we’ll need to handle such a cataclysmic event. The tools for redemption, evacuation and saving lives will be at the bottom of City Hall’s Folly.
Need a good laugh? There’s nothing in the FEIR or supporting studies that addresses that specific scenario, suggests mitigation other than that they build the garage really, really strong. City Hall promises, crosses their hearts and (dare we say it?) hope to die. That’s reassuring as Hell, which is where some feel the VEP proponents are ultimately destined for.
Underappreciated and barely reaching public minds are the difficulties surrounding airborne pollutants once they break ground and start exposing soil imported from unknown origins according to the FEIR.
Locals know of the lead at levels above acceptable compliance, but remember that workers during the process will be also exposed----Not just residents: “…..may have been contaminated by the historic uses at the site. Because the extent of potential past contamination of these soils is not yet fully known, the impacts related to the exposure of contaminants to construction workers, City Hall, nearby businesses and residents during soil grading and excavation activities is potentially significant.” FEIR for the VEP
There will be mandatory breathing masks and probably those neon-hued Hazmat suits aplenty. How artistically colorful, huh? Art in public places for 5, 6, 7 years or so, maybe we should start a kiddies contest: “Paint that alien Hazmat man, Bobby!”
Depending on wind current conditions, during the high velocity Santa Anas (off-shore) the dispersion shadow will end up all over downtown, all of the way to Coast Highway. During prevailing onshore, the specter will flow up through the festivals, businesses and Canyon Acres residential neighborhoods.
So maybe the kids can design very trendy masks for their schoolmates, residents in the area, vehicular commuters, bikers and pedestrians alike. Offer them a free 5-7 year trip to somewhere else, anywhere else.
Another lingering doubt is over the FEIR’s contention that the soil excavated can be rehabilitated, recycled onsite or exported for reuse:
“Where uncertified fill soils and loose upper portions of the alluvium, estimated to be on the order of ten feet, are located beneath floor slabs, over excavation and re-compaction of these materials are recommended beneath the parking structure unless a structural first floor level is utilized. It is expected that most of the excavated alluvial materials would be suitable for use at other construction projects. Any existing fill materials, less any oversized materials or organic debris, would also be suitable for use as compacted fill.” FEIR for the VEP
Harkening to the ill-fated downtown flood control project circa 2000, the only alternative strategy discussed back then was to export the wet contaminated gunk out to Act V. Spread it out to dry (“de-watering”) to lessen the eventual weight, and then haul it to a hazardous waste landfill truckload by truckload.
If that’s the strategy for the VEP (never mentioned in the FEIR), aren’t we kind of running out of parking room for vehicles at Act V? And you can imagine the stench for those in proximity, whether parking or commuting on by. The residential neighbors will love that odor, also not covered in the VEP FEIR. And what about airborne pollutant containment while drying?
If ALL or a great portion of the soil excavated for the VEP is deemed tainted, then that’s hundreds of cubic yards that’ll need to be moved twice. Another factor is that the dominant sandy loam soil isn’t amenable to recompaction. Its purposes are self-limiting. Presently indeterminate amounts will need to be exported, removed whether polluted or not, and have questionable (possibly expensive) destinations.
To me, it’s no longer about letting Laguna vote. It’s about three people who refuse to admit any flaws. As part-time leaders, none an environmental engineer or related field, not one knows much about remediation and mitigation at this massive and complex level beyond what staff tells them.
They were honored and humbled on election night. As part of that victory, they were imbued with tremendous fiduciary powers (in this instance, as local lead agency stewards of CEQA) by the State of California and their electorate. They should hold precious and respect their resident’s fiscal AND physical environment, using as adjudicative guidelines strict but logical, necessary protection regulations.
The price of democracy is eternal vigilance, the price of a safe and healthy environment in such a special, pristine image, upscale berg no less so. These elected officials appear to have been asleep at the wheel during the entire VEP fiasco. Or at minimum conveniently out to lunch with downtown business interests.
Roger E. Bütow is a 41-year resident and local builder. He’s also a land use and regulatory compliance advisor. He can be reached at email@example.com or at his home office: 949.715.1912.
Previous Roger Bütow columns on the Village Entrance Project:
- Village Entrance Project: Unresolved Water Quality and Soil Remediation Issues From 12 Years Ago Linger
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