Environmental Review Fails to Test for Hazardous Waste on Land Slated for Homes and Schools

Defense Sites at Rancho Mission Viejo Similar to Others Contaminated with Rocket Fuel, Say Conservation Groups

LOS ANGELES (August 9, 2004) -- A draft environmental review of large-scale development plans for Rancho Mission Viejo in south Orange County failed to test for hazardous waste at two defense industry sites, conservation groups charged today. The sites are slated for development of new homes and elementary schools, but could be contaminated with harmful by-products of rocket fuel, according to formal comments submitted today by the Sierra Club, NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council), Endangered Habitats League, and other conservation groups.

The draft environmental review prepared by Orange County also fails to mention that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency substantially fined a division of Northrop Grumman for violating federal hazardous waste laws at the Capistrano Test Site, one of the areas proposed for development, the groups said.

Rancho Mission Viejo is a spectacular natural area threatened by a proposal to build 14,000 homes and 5 million square feet of commercial space. The development plan would bring 30,000 more people -- the equivalent of neighboring San Juan Capistrano -- to south Orange County, dumping traffic on local streets, taxing the ability of cities and the county to provide essential services, and polluting local air and water.

"One of the most worrisome holes in the county's report is the lack of thorough testing for several types of extremely toxic hazardous wastes at the two defense industry sites slated for new homes and elementary schools," said Bill Corcoran, Regional Representative for the Sierra Club. "It's one more signal for the county to slow down and make sure that it is protecting the interests of residents."

Contamination at other, similar facilities suggests that the Rancho Mission Viejo test sites, one of which is still active, may be polluted with a rocket fuel by-product, NDMA, which is hazardous to human health even at extremely low levels, and with perchlorate, a primary component of rocket fuel, which harms the thyroid and is especially dangerous for infants.

"Perchlorate and NDMA have contaminated groundwater at many test sites similar to the one currently operating on the Rancho Mission Viejo property," said Cara Horowitz, a project attorney for NRDC. "While we don't know whether this site is contaminated in the same way, it's only common sense to test for these harmful chemicals before building homes and schools there."

The county's Draft Environmental Impact Report (DEIR) for the project also fails to disclose to the public a host of other ways in which the massive development project would harm the environment, including air and water quality, traffic and local wildlife, according to the groups.

"The developer has estimated far less traffic from their project than would be indicated by state standards," said Corcoran. "Local cities can't plan responsibly when they aren't given accurate information."

Rancho Mission Viejo's 23,000 acres are the last large, unprotected natural area in Orange County. The area is the last opportunity in the county to protect an unbroken stretch of land from the coast to the Santa Ana Mountains. In recognition of its importance to endangered wildlife, the land has been the subject of State of California Natural Community Conservation Planning for over a decade. The sudden and unexpected effort by the Rancho Mission Viejo developers to get county approvals to build what will essentially be a new city threatens years of planning that has involved thousands of Orange County residents.

"Numerous conservation groups and thousands of Orange County residents have participated in developing a plan that could protect the natural treasures of Rancho Mission Viejo," said Dan Silver, Executive Director of the Endangered Habitats League. "If the County approves development on the property before this conservation plan is in place, the public may find that it has no realistic option for protecting these beautiful natural lands for future generations."

The groups' comments concluded that the county's report fails to disclose the full risks that the development poses for the region. "Without full disclosure of water and air quality, traffic, and other effects on the natural area and the surrounding communities, the county cannot fulfill its duty to ensure that development is well-planned and responsible," said Horowitz.

The three groups urged the county to revise and re-issue the DEIR so that the public and local governments have a more accurate accounting of how the proposed development of Rancho Mission Viejo will affect residents' quality of life and south Orange County's air quality, water quality and natural areas.