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    Hangar fire: Tustin to get $1 million from Navy to start cleaning up neighborhoods
    • November 10, 2023

    The Tustin City Council approved an agreement with the U.S. Navy during an emergency meeting Friday, Nov. 10, that will give the city $1 million in federal funds to start cleaning up toxic debris still covering homes, businesses and public spaces after the Navy’s vacant blimp hangar caught fire earlier this week.

    The agreement doesn’t cover cleanup of the charred north hangar, which Tustin Mayor Austin Lumbard reiterated is still the Navy’s responsibility. But he said the agreement will allow Tustin to “move as quickly as possible” to start helping residents, who are looking to the city for guidance on what to do with ash, chunks of blackened fiber and other materials scattered around their homes.

    “We need to get it off of their property so they can move on with their lives,” Lumbard said during the meeting. He added, “To the extent that we can mobilize resources to remove that debris as quickly as possible, that’s gonna be a big relief for our neighborhoods.”

    Residents have so far largely been following advice from county and air quality authorities, who’ve told them not to touch debris from the hangar fire positive tests for asbestos, lead, arsenic and nickle. But even that advice has been confusing.

    Instructions the county sent out Thursday first stated that residents should not “disturb” any ash or debris and instead call for help. But in the same advisory, they encouraged residents to wash debris off property.

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    Asked about that seeming contradiction, Third District Supervisor Don Wagner, chair of the county Board of Supervisors, said the right approach depends on the type of debris.

    “If it’s just ash and the normal soot from a fire, it is my understanding that it is safe to hose off.” Hosing the material off is key, he said, since sweeping it up or using a leaf blower would kick some of the debris back up into the air.

    As for larger pieces of debris found on properties, Wagner said the initial advice was to use gloves to pick that material up and place it in trash bags. But with results showing the presence of asbestos and other toxic materials, he said the recommendation now is to call the county’s newly established hotline at 714-628-7085 to request help in cleaning that material up.

    The county and city of Tustin are partnering to hire consultants trained to safely handle such materials who will be available to remove debris from people’s private property, Wagner said. That work would begin “certainly over the weekend,” if not sooner, he said. Residents just need to call the county hotline to initiate the process.

    The same crews will be working to clean up public spaces such as streets and parks, per Wagner. And he said they’ll be coordinating with homeowners associations and other groups to advise on cleaning those properties.

    The area could see some rain early next week, per weather forecasts. Wagner said that should help settle what’s in the air and wash some remaining ash and soot away.

    City, county and federal representatives expressed frustration Thursday that no one from the Navy, which owns the hangar and land around it, had been to Tustin since the fire broke out early Tuesday. As of Friday morning, Wagner said he’d been told a Navy team would be arriving “within the next several days.”

    “The reality is the fire is still smoldering. That means nobody can get access to the site in any event until (the Orange County Fire Authority) has finished their work and knocked this thing down completely,” he said.  And since Wagner said the expectation is for the Navy to really help only with direct site cleanup, he said he’s not particularly bothered that the Navy hasn’t put boots on the ground yet.

    On Friday, Navy officials said they also were anxious to move forward with the cleanup and were happy that the contract with the city was approved.

    The $1 million, which city officials will use to head up the cleanup project, will help with debris removal and emergency disposal of residual materials, site security, and mitigation of fugitive dust emissions, Navy officials said.

    “Further, we will be engaged with the city to address the remainder demolition and debris removal,” said Navy spokesman Chris Dunne. “We are also coordinating with the U.S. EPA to regarding next steps.”

    While local officials and residents have wondered where Navy personnel have been, Dunne said multiple people from the Navy’s Base Realignment and Closure Program have been busy this week talking with the city and attending meetings mostly via Zoom. They’ve also been responding to letters sent by Congress members.

    “We are still very much in the reactive mode,” he said. “With the agreements signed, we will look to the city to see how to team up and have a Navy presence at the site.”

    Dunne said two Navy experts, one is an environmental expert and the other is the base closure manager who is intimately familiar with the hangars, are going to be the ones onsite first.

    Dunne said any perception that the Navy “doesn’t care” is inaccurate. “We do care deeply; that’s why we’re here,” he said.

    “It will fall on BRAC and the city to agree on what will be done with it,” he said of the hangar property, adding that most certainly, as part of the cleanup, there will be soil remediation to make sure there is nothing dangerous in the ground that could later be beneath a children’s playground or an apartment building.

    Here are answers to some other common questions still lingering around health concerns and safety testing in the wake of the fire.

    Q: The Board of Supervisors, along with the city of Tustin, declared a state of emergency due to the fire late Thursday afternoon. Why, and what does that mean about the seriousness of the ongoing incident?

    A: “That is not a sign to people that, oh my gosh, life and limb are at risk and Armageddon is upon us,” Wagner said. Instead, he said the declaration is largely about making sure the county can make quick moves and get access to the resources and funds it needs to respond to the situation.

    When a local government declares an emergency, it lets them cut through some red tape in terms of the usual process to hire contractors such as hazardous materials experts to help deal with the aftermath of such a disaster. It can also give local governments access to additional funding to help pay for those efforts. And it can potentially make it easier for residents and businesses who suffer financial impacts from the disaster to seek compensation.

    The county did request federal firefighting services to help the OCFA  battle the blaze, Wagner said. But he said they were shot down, with no explanation for why those resources weren’t made available.

    In terms of the urgency of the situation for residents now, Wagner said, “I think the operative word is caution.” He said to follow the county’s Emergency Operations Center tips and reach out for advice if needed. “But we’re not at this point any longer where we’re looking at any kind of imminent threat.”

    Q: Should people seek medical attention if they had direct contact with ash or debris, particularly immediately after the fire ignited? Are there symptoms they should watch for related to impacts from exposure?

    A: Residents should avoid touching any materials from the fire and wash their hands as soon as possible if they do have contact with any ash or debris, said registered nurse Sean Marchese, who’s an environmental toxin and oncology expert at The Mesothelioma Center with But Marchese said, “It is not necessary to seek immediate medical attention unless you have trouble breathing.” Documenting exposure to asbestos is important though, he said, and a medical professional can help in that regard.

    “Exposure to asbestos does not cause immediate symptoms or health issues. It takes decades, often 20 to 60 years, for asbestos-related diseases to develop,” Marchese noted. “While a one-time, heavy exposure to asbestos can cause disease decades later, ongoing exposure over time has greater risk. Most people who develop asbestos-related diseases worked with asbestos for years.”

    While Wagner hesitated to offer any medical advice, he said, “If there is someone who’s worried, I would absolutely say check with your own medical professional or call our hotline.”

    Q: Is it OK to let pets outside now if you’re near the hangar? Are there symptoms to watch for in animals?

    A: The Tustin Legacy Animal Hospital, which is close to the hangar site, forwarded an email they’d sent to their pet owners with this advice:

    “We highly recommend staying indoors and keeping your pets indoors as much as possible. Run your air conditioners and air filters to help keep your home air circulated and clean. Please monitor your pets for any signs of respiratory difficulty, collapse, pale/blue gums/tongue, or other concerning signs, and notify us as soon as possible if you have concerns; or call VCA Orange County Veterinary Specialists at 949-654-8950 if it’s after-hours.”

    Q: Are there any plans to help residents in the vicinity get air purifiers, masks or other protective gear?

    A: That’s not something that’s been discussed, Wagner said. But he said as they bring the consultant on board, they’ll run through different scenarios that might help the public.

    Q: Air quality testing showed asbestos at concentrations of up to 27%. What do those levels mean? Can you put that in context in terms of the risk?

    A: The local air quality district has deferred all questions to the county.

    Wagner said he didn’t have details on what the exact numbers mean. But he said air district officials did say the levels that came in Wednesday were “concerning,” which is why schools were canceled in Tustin on Thursday, residents were encouraged to wear masks and other protective steps were taken.

    “Test results that show concentrations of asbestos up to 27% in ash and debris are serious,” Marchese said. “This percentage of asbestos means the ash and debris are dangerous to touch or disturb in any way. And it means the air quality in the area may have been affected.”

    Q: What levels of lead, arsenic and nickel were detected?

    A: Wagner said he hadn’t seen hard numbers on those levels. Those reports weren’t included in materials published by the county, and the air district didn’t respond to requests for more information.

    Q: What are the results of testing on samples taken Nov. 9?

    A: Those results weren’t in yet as of late Friday morning, Wagner said. He was told it could take 24 hours, so he hopes they’ll have more information soon. But Wagner said air district officials did relay that levels for metals and other hazards were “coming back to virtually normal” in latest samples.

    Q: How far from the site has sampling been done? What’s the furthest distance contaminated material has been found to travel?

    A: Wagner said he didn’t have any hard numbers in terms of telling people within, say, one mile that air quality was safe. He said he asked the air quality district to take samples from beyond the immediate vicinity of the hanger, but was told that wouldn’t be happening. He said that tells him they’re not concerned about more widespread pollution and that the hazards are “pretty well restricted to the environs around the hangar.”

    Q: What is the planned schedule for continued testing? And when and how will results from those tests be made public?

    A: The county is partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to monitor any long-term air and ground contaminants. There’s no firm timeline yet for when and how often that testing will take place or how results will be disseminated, Wagner said. But he said the tests will happen as often as experts recommend and that results will be made public.

    This is a developing story, please check back for updates.

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    ​ Orange County Register