Tustin Pleas for More Help from Navy, State in Hangar Fire Aftermath

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Hazardous waste clean up at the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin
Workers in protective gear take part in hazardous waste clean up on Sunday, December 3, 2023 at the historic Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin, California. (Photo by Mindy Schauer, Orange County Register/SCNG)

City leaders are pleading for more help from the state and federal government to support cleanup efforts in the fallout from the massive hangar fire that broke out almost a month ago at the closed Marine Corps Air Station Tustin.

“We need the Navy to not only step up in terms of funding, but in terms of actively leading the recovery effort,” Mayor Austin Lumbard said Tuesday. “The city has filled the void in the interim, but now that the fire is extinguished, we’re really looking for the Navy to take ownership of their property and their recovery leadership.”

Officials said the city has depleted what it could take from its reserves to fund asbestos testing and cleanup in the public and residential areas surrounding the burnt northern hangar and are counting on other government agencies to step up.

Cleanup costs are expected to be in the tens of millions for addressing in the surrounding neighborhoods. Lumbard called the $1 million the Navy committed early on “grossly insufficient.”

Navy officials on Wednesday said the service has been working with the city since day one of the fire and in no way is shirking its responsibilities or its share of funding.

“We are working on an amendment to an agreement to provide additional funding,” said Chris Dunne, a Navy spokesman. “We knew the $1 million wasn’t going to do it. The Navy fully intends to support what the city is doing and fund that to the fullest amount we can.”

Dunne acknowledged that setting up the funding agreement has taken weeks, but expects more money to make its way to the city in days. Officials are now figuring out the Navy’s financial responsibility and what will be covered, he said.

“It’s just one of those tedious processes of getting the language just right and trying to remember through this whole process that we’re talking about people and the community and taking care of people and not getting too bogged down in process at a time when the help is needed,” Dunne said.

The City Council on Tuesday asked to continue efforts to pressure local, state and federal officials for help with the response. City leaders are also asking for additional health guidance from the county health agency. Residents have peppered local leaders with questions about what is and isn’t safe to do in and around their homes, such as walking dogs or using outdoor barbecue pits.

All the councilmembers echoed the calls for help. Councilmember Letitia Clark implored the county public health director for clearer answers about “simple things.”

When asked Wednesday for comment, a representative of the OC Health Care Agency sent a link to Tustin’s North hangar fire community resource page.

Clark said the emergency is not over and the city still needs help from higher levels of government.

“There were a lot of promises made that we would have that support and it’s kind of dwindled as time has gone by,” Clark said.

Tustin declared a local emergency on Nov. 10 and the county followed up with its own on Nov. 13. Both times the city and county each asked the governor to declare a state of emergency.

“The governor has yet to act,” Lumbard said. “We are committed to getting that state help that we ultimately need to free up some resources for our recovery.”

Since the fire’s outbreak, the Navy has deferred to the city for what the next steps are, Dunne said, because “the Navy is not equipped to handle this type of response compared to what local officials can do.”

Regarding the hangar footprint, the Navy will lead the cleanup there and hire experts and contractors. While no exact timeline has been set for that, Dunne said he expects that to happen “in the next few weeks.”

“We’ll look at what needs to be deconstructed from the site and removed all the debris,” he said, adding that at present a product that seals the debris in place has been put over the site to “create a crust.”

Work is expected to begin Thursday, Dec. 7, to take down the 120-foot tall hangar doors that remain standing, officials said. Cranes and rigging have already been set up around the hangar and removing the doors will take about two weeks.

After the fire was confirmed completely extinguished on Dec. 1, the Orange County Fire Authority stepped down from leading the Incident Management Team and disaster recovery contractors from Innovative Emergency Management will now lead the team.

Colin Cummings, an official with IEM, said during a presentation to the City Council Tuesday that debris will not be removed from the site during door deconstruction.

“The Navy will be responsible for all debris removals from (the) incident site, and is working to assign a contractor at this time to perform that work,” Cummings said. “When the Navy is ready to start taking that material off the incident site, we will be increasing (air) monitoring just because of all the additional risks of breaking that material apart, and removing it into those containers and taking it off site.”

The Navy has yet to explain how it plans to address remediation on the entire site, Lumbard said. Air monitoring will remain active surrounding the hangar until the site has been completely cleaned by the Navy.

Assemblymember Cottie Petrie-Norris, who represents Tustin, sent a letter on Tuesday to the Navy asking for an update on its efforts and if it would commit to expanding debris cleanup and reimbursing people who have paid for asbestos remediation out of pocket.

The city on Wednesday hosted its first community Zoom meeting to provide updates on recovery efforts. OCFA Division Chief Scott Wiedensohler said in the meeting that more than 60% of the surrounding community has been cleaned up as of Dec. 1.

Future community meetings will be 10 a.m. on Wednesdays. Residents are asked to send new questions and requests regarding the hangar fire to NavyHangarRecovery@tustinca.org.

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