By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Cartwright quickly reassured board members that "We have a plan for what we’ll do when and if we hit [unknown wells] when we’re grading." He added, "This is not even close to being one of the most dangerous sites." And he reminded the board, "I cut my teeth as an oil and gas lawyer. So I’m not exactly unfamiliar with this topic."
It’s worth noting that the oil-and-gas division has a standing policy opposing construction on oil wells. It assisted L.A. Unified, as it does other builders, because people will build on oil fields whether the agency approves or not, particularly given the dearth of open land in urban Los Angeles.
The district’s strategy was basically to deal with problems as construction crews came upon them. Cartwright later defended this approach by asserting that the complex so altered the natural topography that a thorough review of the site in advance had limited value.
And to the layman, the Belmont site does not appear all that problematic. The known oil wells are concentrated on small portions of the site; the Belmont team located the buildings away from these wells. That way, methane could vent naturally through the grounds and playing fields. Cartwright was more or less satisfied that he’d addressed the matter.
But that’s not the view of the school district’s recently hired environmental experts, nor the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. Yes, you want to avoid oil wells, but the distinction between locating over an oil well and merely near one is meaningless in terms of the need to gauge risks, said Hamid Saebfar, chief of the Southern California Cleanup Operations Branch.
"You need to know what you’ve got before you start construction," said Saebfar. "Or you may be surprised and you may be surprised in a bad way."
In fact, about two-thirds of the site never got more than a cursory environmental review, according to Angelo Bellomo, a former state toxics official now consulting for the school system. But there was more than enough information to set off alarms. Reviews going back as far as the late 1980s, when the site belonged to private developers, noted troubling spot concentrations of carcinogens and polluted ground water. "A reasonable technical person would say there’s a need to follow up," said Bellomo, a member of the recently formed school-safety team.
His colleague on the team, environmental attorney Barry Groveman, called it a "no-brainer."
The findings were enough to trigger state law requiring the district to notify the Department of Toxic Substances Control. But the district never did so. Cartwright apparently did not know of this notification requirement, and he was not alone in this regard. The toxics department only learned of problems at the site from researchers working for Assemblyman Wildman.
The toxics agency has recently begun working with L.A. Unified at nine school sites with pollution issues. Until recently, "the school district would not deal with us," said Saebfar. "All these school sites have come to our attention by accident, or someone else brought them to us." He also noted that construction on Belmont didn’t begin until well after problems began to emerge at another campus, Jefferson Middle School. "Why didn’t they learn from their previous mistakes?"
For this, both the school district’s structure and culture have to bear some responsibility. The district has an environmental-health-and-safety office, but the staff there lacked the expertise, attention or authority to discover the problems at Belmont and elsewhere. In addition — as noted by state Senator Tom Hayden — the review system embodies an inherent conflict: The person who heads the real estate branch, which pursues affordable, available school sites, also directs the district’s environmental-review process.
State officials also failed to exercise oversight at Belmont. The State Allocation Board approved Belmont’s land purchase despite the questionable environmental review provided by Shimizu. And an analyst from the California Department of Education also readily approved the site. This state staffer, Betty Hanson, would shortly thereafter join Shambra’s Belmont staff as a consultant, and later, after the death of Shambra’s wife, the two began dating.
In her role with the state, Hanson sometimes rejected school locations that had traffic problems, air pollution from freeways and insufficient space for P.E. classes. Her purview also included problems in the soil, though, like other state analysts, she lacked expertise in that area. By chance, she was forced to recount her methodology at Belmont in a lawsuit over the Ambassador Hotel site.
"There were environmental hazards on those sites, weren’t there?" queried an attorney, who was challenging her Belmont site approval.
"Not environmental. No, sir. Natural hazards."
"There is an oil field underlying those sites; isn’t that correct?
"Yes. That’s a natural hazard."
On behalf of the state, Hanson had apparently accepted the Belmont team’s view that toxic and safety issues associated with an oil field were entirely distinct from any other toxic issues. By this logic, it’s somehow more acceptable to endanger children through natural hazards, such as oil fields, as long as they’re protected from man-made ones.
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