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
The tiny city of Signal Hill is surrounded by Long Beach. It‘s little more than an incorporated oil field with a nice view. So you can’t blame people there for wanting to build on oil fields -- and even on top of old oil wells. It‘s all they’ve got.
“There are buildings over wells everywhere in Signal Hill, and probably lots of places in L.A. and Long Beach,” said Gary Jones, the city‘s community-development director. “The proof’s in the pudding. There are literally hundreds of buildings built on oil wells with no problems.”
But there have been some problems. In 1985, a methane-caused explosion at a Ross Dress for Less store in the Fairfax District injured about two dozen people and presented the alarming spectacle of methane-fed flames licking up through cracks in the pavement. But what does the Fairfax incident have to do with the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex? In 1985, buildings in Fairfax had no protection against methane. Many still don‘t.
Just the same, critics of the Belmont project speak ominously of “Fairfax,” and have other reasons for wanting to abandon the $200 million school. Here is a sampling of their objections, with responses compiled from months of interviews and research. (For more complete answers, see the Belmont Web-page link at www.laweekly.com.)
Belmont is a toxic-waste dump. It’s too dangerous to build on this site.
This is a myth. Belmont is a former oil-drilling site -- nothing more, nothing less -- and its fundamental environmental sins stem from that.
You shouldn‘t build on oil fields.
A large portion of Southern California is built over oil fields, including much of Beverly Hills, the Fairfax District and parts of downtown, as well as large swaths of Long Beach, all of Signal Hill and, in Orange County, a tract stretching from West Newport to Sunset Beach. The Belmont site was covered by homes and apartments, along with a smattering of businesses, until most of the land was cleared to make way for Central City West, a massive development knocked out by the recession of the early 1990s.
You shouldn’t build on “old” oil fields -- that is, oil fields where extensive drilling predates a modern safety standards. Old wells are perpetual hazards, and many old wells can‘t even be found.
Without question, old wells are potentially hazardous, but the Belmont site is hardly unique in having old oil wells. To date, of about 1,200 known wells in the expansive L.A. City Oil Field (and many well sites are not known), only 39 have been plugged or re-plugged to modern standards since the state began to manage the effort in 1985. (About 60 of the wells are still active.)
“It seems reasonable to say that hundreds of buildings have been built over old oil wells,” said Division of Oil and Gas spokesman Don Drysdale. “We don’t have a solid number, but just common sense tells you that there are probably hundreds, if not more. There are buildings in Los Angeles that have collectors, things that collect oozing oil. There is one building that uses the natural gas for energy purposes.”
The entire Park LaBrea housing complex sits on the Salt Lake Oil Field -- an “old” oil field -- as does the Beverly Center. Even now, new commercial and residential construction is rising on the “old” oil field in the Fairfax District.
You can‘t build schools on oil fields. Schools require a higher safety standard.
The school district already runs eight schools that are either directly over or within a quarter mile of the L.A. City Oil Field.
Belmont is unique and uniquely dangerous.
Although it is impossible to disprove that Belmont is somehow unique, and thus uniquely dangerous, this assertion also has never been proven. So far, the Weekly has found only one person with detailed knowledge on the subject who is making this claim. He is Bernard Endres, an engineer with a law degree who earned his Ph.D. in Systems Safety Engineering in 1991 through a correspondence course.
The Division of Oil and Gas does not subscribe to Endres’ claim of Belmont‘s fatal uniqueness. Nor does the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees environmental issues at school sites. Nor do professionals who design safety systems for oil-field sites -- or at least the Weekly could not find any.
Belmont is contaminated and could never be cleaned up.
It is absolutely true that the Belmont site can never be completely “cleaned up.” Once an oil field, always an oil field. A safety system would have to deal with dangerous oil byproducts, namely methane and hydrogen sulfide. Although hardly a geyser, this oil field, like many others in the city, has an inexhaustible supply of those oil-field gases. They can be diverted or, alternatively, diluted to harmless levels.
Methane safety systems don‘t work: Barriers meant to keep methane out of buildings have an astonishingly high failure rate. It is highly likely that gases will leak into Belmont’s buildings with disastrous effects.
This concern has some factual basis. Each of the two prominent methane barriers has detractors who cite its “failures,” or leaks. Some of this finger-pointing comes from the makers or sellers of rival safety systems who have sought to discredit competitors. Engineers have attributed the failures to improper installation.