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
State exposure standards are less demanding, and federal standards for hydrogen sulfide nonexistent. California sets acceptable ambient exposure levels (what you could breathe just by walking around outside) at .03 ppm per hour. But workplace standards are considerably less strict, with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health setting an average 10 ppm limit over eight hours, 15 ppm for 15 minutes, and an upper ceiling of 50 ppm.
But Kilburn’s much lower danger threshold cannot be cavalierly dismissed, because government agencies typically set exposure-limit levels for adults, not children — whose developing bodies are more sensitive to toxins. And health standards generally become more exacting over time. Thus, the "acceptable" level of lead has consistently gotten smaller and smaller. And hydrogen sulfide is undeniably toxic: The consequences of breathing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) include headaches, eye irritation, pulmonary damage and, in concentrations heavy enough, neural damage or death.
Yet it is possible to over-err on the side of safety. A 1999 federally funded study concluded, "There is no clear or convincing evidence in the scientific and medical literature that hydrogen sulfide causes adverse health effects at low concentrations," which the study defined as less than 10 parts per million. (Note: Kilburn’s standard is 1/10 of 1 part per million, a difference of two orders of magnitude.) A 1991 study reported that normal "mouth air" contains approximately 1 part per million of hydrogen sulfide. (A 1992 study set that measurement lower, at .052 parts per million.) Studies have found intestinal gas to contain hydrogen sulfide concentrations ranging from 0 to 10,000 parts per million. Animal feces contains amounts of hydrogen sulfide surpassing the Kilburn danger zone.
The air in San Bernardino approaches or exceeds Kilburn’s hydrogen sulfide danger zone about four days a year, according to data from the California Air Resources Board. And while no one would make a case for breathing the air in San Bernardino, keep in mind what Kilburn means regarding his danger zone. That’s the level he sets as potentially causing instantaneous and permanent brain damage.
If Kilburn is correct — and if his theories were reason enough for abandoning Belmont because safety systems don’t work — some sweeping and life-changing conclusions also would follow. Among them: Passengers should never ride L.A.’s subway, whose tunnels pass through pockets of hydrogen sulfide. And the Fairfax District’s Pan Pacific Park, which is built below ground level in the city’s High Potential Methane Zone, could be a deathtrap. Moreover, evacuations might be in order for the several schools and the thousands of homes and businesses that lie atop the same oil field as Belmont.Return to top. 12. Installing a safety system would take too long.The school-board majority is doing its darnedest to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, the board voted to put construction on hold in July 1999. Then, shortly thereafter, district officials stopped work on a safety analysis in midstream. If the analysis had been allowed to go forward, construction could have probably resumed some time ago, according to officials with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control. Return to top. 13. Installing a safety system would cost too much.Whether the school opens or not, L.A. Unified will have invested some $200 million in the project. Consultants originally estimated that a safety system would run between $2 million and $10 million, including the cost of maintenance over 30 years. A worst-case scenario presented to the Belmont Commission (which reviewed the project in the latter part of 1999) set an upper-limit cost at $60 million, though that figure leaves professionals in the field, including those that analyzed the site for L.A. Unified, scratching their heads. They told the Weeklythey just can’t get the numbers up that high. They made the same statements in testimony as part of an ongoing Belmont-related lawsuit. The $60 million figure, however, was portrayed as conservative by Ira Reiner, the executive director of the Belmont Commission, who noted that expenses in construction projects frequently soar higher than their projected costs. A safety system at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach initially cost $1.5 million to design and install, and is running at approximately $153,000 a year to maintain since 1998, when it was activated. The ground under Hoag has hydrogen sulfide and methane in higher concentrations than Belmont. Hoag’s system has three layers of redundancy built into it, beginning with gas extraction wells and collection trenches that funnel the gas into a central processor. There also are sub-slab pipes with a blower that activates should gas somehow reach underneath the buildings, and there are ventilation systems inside the buildings attached to alarms. The cost issue also cuts another way. Despite the expense of a safety system, finishing Belmont would cost $74 million less than building another school elsewhere, according to a September 1999 memo prepared by the district’s Independent Analysis Unit. This analysis presumes that the 35 acres of Belmont could, in fact, be replaced with a singleschool on an environmentally clean site. The district has been unable to obtain such a location in the downtown area. (Some district officials have pinned their hopes of financial rescue upon winning a malpractice judgment against O’Melveny & Myers, the law firm that participated in the Belmont project on behalf of L.A. Unified. If the school district wins the lawsuit, an unfinished Belmont might enable L.A. Unified to collect more in damages. But the school system also could lose this litigation, driving up district costs further. Fundamentally, giving up on a half-finished school to do better in a lawsuit is an odd way to run a school district that is desperately short on classroom space.) Return to top. 14. There are faster, safer and less expensive alternatives to Belmont.
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