Monday, June 6, 2011

Military Brownfields in CA

A few weeks back I saw an article in the San Francisco Chronicle titled “Development Progress Hard to See at Former Navy Bases.” For a decade spanning the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century a significant portion of my work was Brownfield redevelopment, so I was very interested in the article. The entire gist of the article can be summed up in a single quote from Pat Keliher, Vice President of SunCal, one of the largest privately owned developers of mixed use and master planned communities in California. "I can't think of one base reuse project in California that's gone well, in all honesty,…The issue is that when the bases closed, everyone came up with reuse plans and set all these expectations, but then no one sat down and said, 'Can we really build this?' "

I went back to look at the some of the military projects I worked on in California. One of my favorite military installations was the former Marine Corp Air Station Tustin, located in southern California. The installation was approximately 40 miles south of LA and approximately 100 miles north of the California and Mexico border. MCAS Tustin encompassed about 1,600 acres of land mostly within the city of Tustin; with approximately 80 acres in the southeast corner of the station within the City of Irvine.

MCAS Tustin was one of my favorite sites because of its history. It was commissioned from agricultural land as a Department of the Navy “lighter-than-air” base in 1942. The installation was used for blimps performing antisubmarine patrols off the coast of southern CA during World War II. Blimp patrols were used to protect costal convoys. Between the end of World War II and 1949 Navy Blimps continued to use the station. In 1950, when the Korean War began, the station was converted to helicopter use and support. The major pollution that occurred at the site was due to the routine maintenance of helicopters, ground support equipment and vehicles engines. Maintenance operations generated wastes such as engine oil, hydraulic fluids, and solvents from cleaning and degreasing operations, jet fuel and hydraulic fluid. There was a main fuel line that transversed the base, the line that ran from the tank farm to the fueling mats (over 7,000 feet of line) and was left in place after the base was closed. In addition, there was a history of spills off the edge of the aircraft parking aprons and temporary storage aprons. Excavation and soil removal took place in the areas adjacent to the aprons, but contaminated soils were left in place under the apron and no testing was done there before the military wanted to transfer ownership of the property to the city.

MCAS Tustin was not a Superfund site, so its remediation and site closure could be handled by California regulators and the Navy. However, for twenty-six years the BRAC (base realignment and closure) Cleanup Team had coordinated cleanup and closure activities at the base. The BRAC Cleanup Team consists of representatives from the Department of the Navy, the US EPA, the Santa Ana Regional Water Quality Control Board, and DTSC. These agencies reviewed and commented on the required documents for closure of the individual areas of concern and contamination. The Department of the Navy acted as the lead federal agency for environmental restoration and the DTSC was the lead regulatory agency providing oversight except where the California Water Quality Control Board was the lead agency. The first problem with the military cleanups was the Department of Defense obligation to minimize costs for the Taxpayer and DTSC trying to maximize the quality of the cleanup. The second problem wasthe dueling agencies. The DTSC and the Water Quality Control Board did not share the same regulatory view point and mission. The groundwater contamination resulting from the solvent and jet fuel releases was left in place and remains to this day. This has resulted in continuing remediation, monitoring and restrictions on use.

The reality is that when a military base is assessed, the history of the base is studied so that potentially problem areas can be identified. Contaminated soil and groundwater are identified after testing in areas likely to be impacted. Many areas received regulatory closure after assessment if there was determined to be no significant impact on the area from historical use. Most soil (except that with PCB and lead contamination) was excavated and treated with the on-site thermal desorption unit (cooked to get rid of the solvent and oil), then returned to the excavations. The soil was tested to confirm that the remediation had removed enough of the contaminants for residential use. The ground water extraction system began pumping on January 3, 2002 and has treated millions of gallons of ground water. However, the Navy did not have a lot of success in eliminating or even reducing the contaminated groundwater plumes. Restrictions on land use and containment of the plume have been used as solutions.

Though the city of Tustin still envisions an 820-acre master planned urban activity center, a place (according to their web site) to “Live, Work, Shop and Play.” The timeline envisioned by the community and the city itself was far too aggressive and optimistic. The remediation and regulatory process has taken years more than they anticipated. In addition, the recession and housing crash forced the Master developer Tustin Legacy Community Partners, a company made up of Shea Homes and Shea Properties II, to walk away from the master planned development. However, most of the land was turned over to the city of Tustin in 2002. The Navy carved out the most contaminated parcels and the source of contamination on 100 acres still held by the Navy and a 14 acre parcel held by the Reserves. This allowed Tustin to begin building housing when the regional housing market and economy was still booming. The housing downturn and the severe economic impact of the recession on the city finances and various developers including SunCal have slowed the project. Future plans still include development of an additional 2,105 new homes, 6.7 million square feet of non-residential commercial space, new roadways and infrastructure and significant parkland and open spaces, including a 2 mile long linear park, but Tustin still has not named a new master developer. .

So far $130 million Infrastructure has been completed. This includes storm drains, water and sewer facilities, dry utilities, traffic signals, and a number of roadways. A 1 million square foot shopping center, “The District at Tustin Legacy” has been open since 2007. South Orange County Community College District has developed an initial phase of its Advanced Technology Education campus. Orange County Social Services has completed the Tustin Family campus on site, and the Village of Hope, a transitional facility for the homeless. Over 1,700 homes of various types have been built in four distinct neighborhoods. For now the former MCAS Tustin is a mix of developed shopping center, housings, fields filled with weeds, some old rundown military buildings, the Village of Hope and two massive blimp hangars. Your prospective determines whether this is a success or failure of a Brownfield redevelopment. Certainly, it is not the shinny and new master development, but it has a good start and with time they might have a triving community. More of a concern is what will happen over time with the long term containment of the contaminated plume and restricted use of the contaminated parcels.


  1. Hello,
    I am currently interested in purchasing a home in this area. Do you know where I could read any up-to-date reports on the contaminated areas that is not released by entities that would benefit from the housing sale?

    thanks in advance,

    1. All the military brownfield information is public information. Generally a copy is maintained at the local library. You can check with the military for the location of the physical records.