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(IRVINE, CA) – The latest Orange County Great Park plans are to keep the runways and hangars at former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in place to “dramatically reduce costs and speed up the building of Irvine’s Great Park,” according to a news report from the Orange County Weekly

El Toro: Courtest of


Former MCAS El Toro is an EPA Superfund site, the base closed in July 1999, and sold at a public auction in 2005.  

Hanagar 296 remains “radiological restricted” over California Department of Public Health concerns about a Navy radiological survey.

The Navy recommended that Hangar 296 be “radiologically released” from unrestricted use in July 2002. The Radium 226 from a paint room was in the North mezzanine of Hangar 296.

As of April 2009, the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) had not approved Hangar 296 for unrestricted use, despite the Navy’s recommendaton.  

As a young Marine in the 1960s, I worked and slept on duty water in this portion of the hangar.  I managed to survive stage 2/3 bladder cancer, a condition linked to radiation exposure.  Other Marine veterans may not have been so lucky.  One close friend who worked besides me died of brain cancer in 2002. 

Hangar 296 was identified as one of the sources of the trichloroethylene (TCE) plume spreading into Orange County’s principal aquifer.

Follow-up by the with CDPH indicated that the state had concerns about the Navy’s radiological survey of the hangar. CDPH did not respond to requests for additional information on any details relating to Weston’s radiological survey. 

Based on an agreement with the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, CDPH “has been designated as the agency responsible for administering programs to protect the citizens of California from unnecessary exposure to radioactive materials. Although the NRC has responsibility for monitoring facilities under Federal jurisdiction, DHS becomes involved when a Federal facility, such as MCAS El Toro, is undergoing closure in a plan to revert to State control.”

Radium 226 (Ra-226) is a known human carcinogen. Navy monitoring wells on base reported elevated levels of alpha radiation from Ra-226 in groundwater confined to an area near several landfills.   

Hangar 296 constructed in 1944 is over 200,000 square feet in area. It is the second of two huge maintenance hangars in the highly industrialized section of El Toro. The hangar was the site of the base’s radium paint room, located in the lower North mezzanine of the building. According to the Navy, the radium paint room operated from the 1940s until the mid-1960s.

A radium paint room was a common feature on many military airfields. Marines used radium luminescent paint on military aircraft’s instruments and gauges to allow pilots to fly at night without detection. The use of Ra-226 for this process was discontinued by the Navy and Marine Corps in the 1960s.

Discovered by Marie and Pierre Curie in 1893, radium salts were first mixed with zinc sulfide during WW I to make a luminous paint. The luminous paint was used on various military instruments and gauges. Alpha particles from the radium collided with zinc sulfide molecules emitting a light over the painted surface. It served as an effective means of illuminating watches and even gun sights to allow the user to view the item at night.

A major concern with Ra-226 is that it has a half-life of 1,600 years. When radium decays, it divides into two parts. Radiation is one part and the second part or daughter is like radium unstable and divides into radiation and another daughter until a stable, nonradioactive daughter is formed. During this lengthy decay process, alpha, beta, and gamma radiations are released. For example, if there were 2 grams of Ra-226 in the year 410, then 1 gram would still remain in 2010.

Based on a review of Roy F.Weston’s report, the Navy contractor reported that “all areas [in the hangar] “were considered impacted and were surveyed. Impacted areas were further divided into several classifications.

Roy Weston’s radiological survey results showed that most of the lower North mezzanine of the hangar and a section of the upper North mezzanine (administrative work space) were classified as either Class 1 or Class 2 areas. Class 1 areas have, or had, a potential for radioactive contamination based on site history, or known contamination above established release limits while Class 2 areas have, or had, a potential for radioactive contamination based on site history, but are not expected to exceed established release limits.

The Navy completed remediation activity in the hangar, including dismantling the entire portion of the ventilation system from the radium room and removing it from the area, resurfacing the hangar roof, removing plumbing system components, and removal of some floor tiles.

To reduce costs and speed up the building of Irvine’s Great Park, the park’s board of directors last week approved moving forward with a scaled-back design of the park’s 200-acre cultural district, according to Adam Elmahrek. This means that Hangar 296 and the runways will likely remain in place as part of the Great Park. 

Since the Navy removed part of the plumbing in the hangar, it’s possible that some Ra 226 paint was dumped into drains and contaminated the sewer lines.  There’s no indication in the Weston report that their radiation survey of Hangar 296 included the sewer lines.  Could this be the reason for CDPH’s hold-up on unrestricted use of the hangar? If so, the remediation costs to the Navy could easily run into the millions. 

A radiological survey of the sewer lines and confirmation of radiation contamination would cost the Navy big bucks and delay any use of this area until remediation was completed. 

For the residents of Orange County, it has to be frustrating to witness the chameleon that is the Great Park downsize now to include El Toro’s runways and hangars as part of the package. 

Don’t be surprised if in the future, the former El Toro tower is restored and air traffic begins to flow once again into the former base.

View the original article at Veterans Today

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