February 2019

Guest Commentary:

The elephant in the room

By Paul Andrews

On March 22, 2014, a housing development in Oso, Washington slid down a hill into a river taking with it 43 human lives. The day after the slide, a grants manager at a state office emailed colleagues stating, “ I still can’t believe two things: one, that people continued to build on that slope, and two, that Snohomish County officials let them.”

Love Canal, just outside of Niagara Falls, was built on an old dumpsite.  One severe weather system brought flooding to the area, raised the water table and drove dangerous chemicals to the surface. The residents, sick with cancers and respiratory problems, were forced to move. Their homes were leveled. The developer had received permission to build there. The city was fully aware of the dangers that existed there because it, along with Hooker Chemical Company, used the site as a dump. 

The area known as Sully-Miller is dangerous. It is in a flood plain. It borders a landfill, and, according to the City of Orange website, it is on a known fault line and in an area subject to liquefaction. Upstream are two earthen dams that are supposed to provide flood control, and they, too, are listed by the City of Orange as being on a fault line and subject to liquefaction. 

The fault lies here
The Villa Park Dam was built in 1963 to provide flood control for communities downstream. Further upstream is the Santiago Creek Dam, an earth/rock structure forming Irvine Lake, the largest body of fresh water in Orange County. Built in 1929, its intention was also to provide flood control.  There have been notable dam failures in the U.S., and the number of deaths is staggering: 1972, Buffalo Creek, 125 dead; 1976, Teton Dam, 14 dead; 1977, Kelly Barnes, 39 dead. 

On Feb. 26, 1969, Santiago Creek flooded. Neither dam controlled the flow of water.  Photos show the Army Corps of Engineers using helicopters to drop old vehicles full of sandbags into the torrent, in an attempt to save the Santiago Road Bridge and homes adjacent to the creek. My brother, a retired Army Corps of Engineer flood and water specialist, recently commented to me, “It’s not a matter of IF the creek floods again, but WHEN.”

The Belmont Learning Center in Los Angeles was built at a cost of $400 million. Prior to its construction, there was much debate concerning the methane gas and benzene seeping from the ground, due to the area being an old oil field and dumpsite. In 1993, the California State Division of Oil and Gas warned of the dangers of building on such land, but its warnings were ignored. Methane gas was detected, and after 15 years of rebuilding, redesigning and the installation of a $17 million gas-mitigation system that costs $500,000 per year to operate, the center was opened. 

Methane migrates
In 1969, methane gas migrated from a landfill into the basement of an armory in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The resulting explosion killed three people, seriously injured five. The same thing happened in 1975 in Sheridan, Colorado; 1983 in Cincinnati, Ohio; and 1984, in Akron, Ohio. 

Adjacent to the Sully-Miller site is a closed landfill that was used from 1962-1966. Environmental restrictions on landfill use were pretty much non-existent at that time.  Many of the solvents and cleaning agents used in the 60s and 70s are not even permitted in this state anymore.  And let’s not forget that household paints containing lead ended up in landfills.

 Drive by, and you can see the methane gas being burned off as it seeps from the ground. In a landfill situation, organic material will continue to decompose and produce the gas; some estimates predict it to be for a minimum of 50 to 75 years. 

A 100-year-old landfill in Danbury, Connecticut caught fire in 1996. Water used to extinguish the fire promoted bacteria growth and increased the production of odor-causing sulfides. Nearby residents became ill.

Residents whose homes surround the Sully-Miller site have complained of respiratory distress and other ailments. It may not be the dust created from crushing rock; that landfill is pumping out gases all the time. 

Sure, the methane is being burned off, but what about other seepage? Remember, gas collection systems reduce gas, not eliminate it. An earthquake in an area subject to liquefaction is the escape route for methane and other toxins to come to the surface. Where? We just cannot predict. 

But wait, there’s more
In addition to toxins buried in the landfill, hundreds of truckloads of old cement, asphalt and who-knows-what-else has been stockpiled on the Sully-Miller site.  Years ago, used motor oils and diesel fuels were excellent for dust control; spray some on the roads used by the mining vehicles, and you have eliminated the dust issue. Imagine how many barrels of oil were dumped and seeped into the ground and into the water table.  And how many of the fluids and chemicals used in the maintenance and repair of mining equipment have been dumped on the site.

 The Willard Dump, located at the 105 and 710 intersection, was cemented over before the 710 Freeway was built because of the known toxicity of its contents. Think of it: an area near where vehicles were going to drive was cemented over, but Milan Capital, with the City of Orange’s approval, wants to move people into homes right next to -- and on top of -- a toxic dump.

If you look at the history of catastrophic dam failures, chemical percolation or methane gas migration, they were caused by a substantial weather incident, be it rain or earthquakes.

Dr. Daniel Swain, a climate scientist that has a Ph.D. in earth system science, posted on his blog, Jan. 13, that weather model projections indicated “the possibility of eight to 10 inches of rain in some areas of Southern California.” “Right now,” he wrote, “it’s predicted with some certainty, it will be at least half of that.”    

Why even allow development on a site known to be contaminated? The city is setting itself up for litigation if it approves building on this site. Orange does not need to be added to the list under Oso, Washington, Love Canal, New York or Danbury, Connecticut. 

Paul Andrews is an Orange Park Acres resident who has independently researched preventable catastrophes.