By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
19. No school district has installed such an extensive safety system. Don’t use kids as guinea pigs.
The premise of this assertion could be true. Weekly researchers have not found a school with as large and detailed a methane safety system as the one contemplated for Belmont. But that factoid is more than a little misleading. There are definitely other Southern California schools that have been built on oil fields, it’s just that their safety systems are inferior to the one that would be installed at Belmont — or they have nosafety system at all.
More than a dozen currently operating Los Angeles Unified schools are built on or adjacent to oil fields or landfills (which also emit dangerous gases). Their safety systems run the gamut — from nothing to something — but they don’t approach the quality and breadth of what’s anticipated at Belmont.
Outside L.A. proper, Beverly Hills High also is located on an oil field, with 19 active on-site oil wells, according to the Division of Oil and Gas. In Orange County, Brea-Olinda High School, completed in 1989, sits on an old oil field and has no safety system whatsoever, according to published reports.
None of which proves that these other schools are unsafe, because oil-field-related problems vary from site to site. But it’s pure tunnel vision to suggest that students at Belmont are guinea pigs based solely on the notion that the school lies above an oil field, as is making the same claim because Belmont would have an extensive safety system. That’s the equivalent of dinging the project for precisely the reason that it’s a step ahead of other schools operating on oil fields.
Looking beyond schools, hundreds of houses and apartment buildings built on L.A. oil fields have either no methane protection or something comparatively primitive. "Lesser" levels of protection from oil-field-related methane can be found at the Central Library, at the Park LaBrea housing complex, and in Chinatown, to name a few examples. There is "lesser" or no protection against potential hydrogen sulfide exposure at MacArthur Park and Lafayette Park, which are open areas near or above the L.A. City Oil Field — just like the playing fields at Belmont.Return to top. 20. You can’t retrofit a safety system onto a half-built campus. So the only way to make Belmont safe would be to tear everything down and start over.The conclusion is not correct, but there is an issue here. The heart of a methane barrier-and-venting system is installed belowthe buildings. And Belmont is half-built. The good news is that the concrete slab has not been poured in most places, so there is still a ready opportunity to install a safety system, according to engineers who do this for a living. The bad news is that, in one section of the campus, the slab already has been poured, and, to complicate matters, it’s a slab that supports the structure of the building. Retrofitting a venting-and-barrier system would likely be more expensive and potentially more difficult as well. The unprotected portion is at the corner of Beaudry and First, the part of the property farthest away from the heaviest oil-drilling activity. But trace amounts of methane have nonetheless been found in the vicinity. John Sepich, the methane specialist who designed the first proposed safety system, told the Weekly, based on his testing, that methane protection was simply unnecessary at that corner, but new LAUSD safety division director Angelo Bellomo disagrees. This corner was originally envisioned as the hub of a small shopping center, above which there are several floors of parking. Above the parking are classroom buildings. The open-air parking floors would spare the classrooms from any methane accumulation, but that doesn’t help the businesses or offices that would occupy the ground floor below. Even if Sepich is right, it’s unlikely that the school district would follow his original, more limited plan at this point. Bellomo contends that the only reasonable, publicly justifiable approach is to protect all the buildings. Return to top. 21. The science of safety systems is primitive and the oversight is poor.
This statement is absolutely true. But paradoxically, it doesn’t bear fundamentally on whether the Belmont site could or would operate safely.
Methane systems come in all sorts, sizes and degrees of quality; the Fairfax District episode effectively jump-started a local cottage industry in methane control, where the desire for inexpensive and pragmatic solutions far out-paced real expertise. Unfortunately, there were and are no degrees in methane-ology or vapor-barrier science. Nor does the state have a certification program for this line of work. Engineers learn how to do this stuff essentially by doing it – the city defines a "qualified engineer" as "a civil engineer currently registered in the State of California and possessing experience in the design of subsurface gas control systems." The city generally approves firms for such work based on a firm’s history of having already installed methane safety systems. You can bet there was a degree of trial and error early on, though system designers could draw on technology developed for the petroleum industry and for landfills.