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California's 40th District

Nov 9, 2023 | In The News

OC Register

Don’t touch the layer of ash or the six-inch chunks of blackened debris that have been landing on the roofs and lawns and cars of Tustin-area residents for the past three days. 

Close your windows. Spray down patios, don’t sweep. Wash ash off pets.

Those were among health warnings Orange County’s newly activated Emergency Operations Center issued Thursday, after some smoke and debris from a still-smoldering fire that destroyed a massive World War II-era hangar in Tustin tested positive for the presence of asbestos, lead, arsenic and nickel. 

All Tustin schools and many city parks were closed Thursday — two days after a blaze tore through the U.S. Navy-owned north hangar at the shuttered Tustin Marine Corps Air Station. Schools were already going to be off Friday for the Veterans Day holiday.

The city of Tustin declared a local state of emergency and the Orange County Board of Supervisors declared a county-wide state of emergency Thursday afternoon due to the fire. And neighboring cities such as Santa Ana and Orange conveyed the health warnings to their residents, who still were seeing ash carried their way by the west-blowing winds.

“The city has contracted with certified asbestos contractors to further assess and remediate hazards to the public,” a city of Tustin announcement Thursday evening said. “The contractor will provide a report to the city and more information will be shared with the community, once complete.” 

A website, www.ocgov.com/tustin, was created Thursday where officials said the most up-to-date information will be provided, including future reports of South Coast Air Quality Management District testing.

“Residents are encouraged to exercise caution to reduce exposure during the clean-up of structural fire debris which may contain asbestos and heavy metal particles,” a county update released Thursday night said.

In a call Thursday afternoon, Fifth District Supervisor Katrina Foley said, “If you can smell it, then you probably shouldn’t breath it.” And if you can see debris, she said, “don’t touch it.” Instead, she directed residents to call a newly established hotline at 714-628-7085 for guidance on what to do, with plans still in the works for dealing with the material.

Jeff Lawrence, who lives a few hundred feet from the hangar in the Columbus Square community, said neighbors have been experiencing shortness of breath since they were awakened by helicopters trying to douse the hangar’s flames around 1 a.m. Tuesday. He remains extremely concerned about potential long-term risks to his young daughter and others, he said, from exposure to known carcinogens such as asbestos.

Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard, who lives near the hangar himself, said Thursday morning he shared residents’ frustration — “frankly anger, at this point” — at a lack of timely communication on potential hazards and what residents should do to stay safe.

With such health concerns in mind, firefighters still hadn’t entered the burned-out hangar site as of Thursday morning, according to Brett Cowdell, spokesman for the Orange County Fire Authority. Instead, he said they had a team standing by in case ongoing Santa Ana winds whip flames up again.

“We always worry about winds and the fact that they can fan flames and that they can dry out fuels,” Cowdell said. But with a team at the ready, he said, “We anticipate that any kind of flare up will be addressed immediately and people won’t have any reason to worry.”

Since firefighters haven’t yet gone inside what’s left of the building, Cowdell said there was no information available on a potential cause of the blaze. 

Lumbard said he’s been told the Navy is now sending a team up to the site.

“The city is not in a position to advise on environmental cleanup,” he said. “We’re really relying on the Navy to get onsite, take control from OCFA and clean up what’s been left after the fire.”

While Foley said she was glad to hear the Navy is sending folks to Tustin, she said, “The Navy needs to step up.”

“We’ve got this heap of a building now that’s owned by the Navy, on Navy property, and the Navy is unwilling to take the lead on the response. And that to me is just unacceptable,” Foley said. “They’ve got the knowledge, the resources, the know-how in terms of the cleanup, and they should be more actively engaged.”

Orange County’s congressional delegation also is pressing the Navy for answers regarding the impacts of the fire.

“We are deeply concerned about the environmental impact of this fire and about the release of pollutants in Tustin and the surrounding areas that could impact our constituents’ health,” Reps. Lou Correa, Young Kim, Katie Porter, Linda Sanchez, Mike Levin and Michelle Steel said in a joint letter to Navy officials Thursday.

The members requested information from the Navy regarding the building materials used to construct the hangar, its plans for cleaning up the site and mitigating impact to the community and plans for the site once cleanup is finished.

Navy officials said Wednesday they were working with local officials on evaluating any health risks from the materials used to construct the hangar and preserve and make the wood fire resistant, including asbestos-cement board and lead-based paint in places.

“The cleanup approach and path forward will follow as soon as possible,” a spokesman for the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure program said Thursday. “Right now, the Navy, the city of Tustin and Orange County Fire Authority are working to determine the cause of the fire while OCFA continues to contain the fire. This is our priority now.”

The 17-story hangar, along with its southern twin, was built in 1942 at the Marine Corps Air Station Tustin to house blimps and planes for patrolling the West Coast for Japanese submarines. After the base was shuttered in 1999, most of the land transferred to Tustin. Hundreds of those acres have since been developed with housing and other community uses. But the Navy still owns both hangars, which are on the Register of National Historic Places.

Tustin leases the south hangar from the Navy and maintains the historic building, with community events sometimes held inside.

The north hangar was supposed to be transferred to county control decades ago, but has been plagued by problems. Its roof collapsed in 2013, prompting a lawsuit from an airship company doing work there at the time. Then reports started flooding in about people trespassing on the site, with a teenager who’d scaled the roof needing to be airlifted out.

The Navy has tightened security around the site in recent years, with regular patrols. And Lumbard said Tustin got permission from the Navy to pay to install a fence, trim vegetation around the site and take other steps to reduce such problems.

Cowdell, who regularly works in the area, said he hasn’t noticed issues with unhoused people or trespassers around. However, when it comes to the cause of this week’s blaze, he said, “Nothing is being ruled out just yet.”

Given when the largely wooden structure was built, Michael Kleinman, an environmental health professor at UC Irvine who researches health risks from fires, said there’s a very good chance arsenic was used to treat the wood and that lead was used in its paint.

“As long as this thing smolders, it will continue to put out toxic material,” Kleinman said. And he said, “The plumes from something like this can travel for miles.”

Those particles can get into nearby homes even when windows are closed, he said. One positive is that most houses in the immediate area are newer, he noted, and so should be well sealed with solid ventilation systems.

Children and people with health conditions are most at risk from exposure, Kleinman said. But he advises anyone who can see or smell obvious exposure to stay with relatives or friends out of the area for a while if they can.

Lawrence said many of his neighbors are now doing just that, or even checking into hotels out of town.

“They just don’t trust that the area is safe,” he said.

But in the nearly two days between when the fire broke out and when official alerts about potential toxins in the debris went out, he said some residents were cleaning up the ash with their bare hands and throwing it in regular trash cans.

The air quality district is still waiting on results of additional testing from the site, per the county. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will be helping to monitor any long-term air and ground contaminants, officials said.

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