By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Fields has opposed Belmont since she joined the board in 1997. She faces a June runoff election against challenger Marlene Canter, who said she’s optimistic that Belmont can be completed safely.
Korenstein, a longtime incumbent who just won re-election, has been against the Belmont project virtually from its inception. “I do not believe you build a school on top of oil fields,” she said.
When pressed on what makes Belmont different from other oil-field schools, Korenstein quickly turned to the theories of Bernard Endres, who came out of nowhere to lend a voice of scientific authority to the Belmont opposition.
Endres, an affable engineer with a law degree and a correspondence-course Ph.D., is a largely self-taught specialist on oil fields who has co-authored journal articles on oil-field themes. He regularly appears at public hearings and at Belmont-related press conferences.
Endres’ experience includes service as an oil-field expert hired by litigants after the 1985 methane explosion in the Fairfax District. In that litigation, Endres asserted that the drilling practices of McFarland Energy caused the buildup of methane that eventually ignited. McFarland denied any responsibility and later settled the case without admitting guilt. More recently, Endres has allied himself with forces opposed to the massive Playa Vista project, asserting that Playa Vista, like Belmont, is unsafe because of hazards from soil gases.
On the matter of Belmont, the Weekly could not find credible peer support for Endres’ fundamental assertion: that the Belmont site is both unique and uniquely dangerous. It was easy to find qualified professionals who dismissed his reasoning as absurd, including officials at the state’s Division of Oil and Gas. The state Department of Toxic Substances Control has noted, in writing and in interviews, that the Belmont project looks doable.
Just Build It Already
The Kajima development team has been booted from the project, but David Koff remains on the case. He insists that the Belmont site should be sold, that it’s too risky to open a school there. And he blames Belmont’s creators for this state of affairs: “Our original allegations had to do with the corrupt way in which the bid was awarded, which in itself more or less predetermined the collapse of the project.” As for the impact of safety issues, “Had the proper testing been done at the proper time, the site would have been rejected completely. Rather than risk this outcome, the Belmont proponents scrupulously avoided the appropriate and legally required procedures.”
Koff characterized Romer’s actions as déjà vu: “What we see happening now is a recapitulation of Mr. Shambra’s modus operandi: head down and charge.”
The school system’s safety director disagrees. “I think that the district can be trusted,” said Angelo Bellomo in a recent interview. “And the way in which we have structured our review of these sites is by entering into agreements with regulatory agencies. So even if you don’t believe that the district can change, you can bank on the fact that regulatory agencies will be playing an increasing role in overseeing this sort of project into the future. Furthermore, state law now requires it.”
In a broader sense, if Los Angeles can’t trust L.A. Unified to manage a finished Belmont, then it’s time for the evacuations to begin. Safety problems of the same magnitude — or greater — are found at scores of existing schools. Arguably, students face a greater health risk from cancer-causing asbestos, a common component in the tiles and insulation at older schools, than they would from Belmont’s methane and hydrogen sulfide. Belmont, of course, would be free of asbestos. And then there’s the very real risk from cancer-causing diesel fumes that leak into poorly maintained school buses. A completed Belmont would help take students off buses. It also would be one of the only campuses built to current earthquake-safety codes.
In truth, all of the school system’s safety issues need to be fully addressed, and watchdogs such as Koff perform a public service by keeping up their guard. In that hopeful light, a safe Belmont seems comfortably within reach. It ought to be one of the district’s safest schools.
If the school district can’t address the wide range of safety challenges, then Belmont should never open, and perhaps all busing should cease as well. And at least a dozen currently operating schools should close too, including old Belmont High, Fairfax High and Francis Polytechnic High — because they are on, or near, oil wells or landfills. Plasencia Elementary and Union Avenue Elementary are around the corner from Belmont — and on the same oil field. The Union Avenue school has 17 abandoned oil wells on a much smaller site than new Belmont. Not any of these other schools has a safety system that meets the standard being applied at the Belmont Learning Complex.
In short, a functional L.A. Unified — or even a partially functional L.A. Unified — can build a safe Belmont. Conversely, a state of dysfunction simply cannot be allowed to persist, for reasons that go well beyond Belmont.
Would I worry about methane and hydrogen sulfide if my wife (a teacher) worked at Belmont? No. Would I send my child to Belmont? Yes — unless, of course, it proved to be a lousy school.
The investigators and whistle blowers have done a service by exposing what went wrong at Belmont. Perhaps a better school district will result. However, insisting on the project’s annihilation — at this late date — serves other agendas, while abusing the children of Los Angeles.