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
Over the last 3 million years, a lot happened in greater Los Angeles that had nothing to do with starlets. The mighty San Gabriel Mountains rose from flat earth to 10,000 feet in the air, while the sand and gravel from rushing rivers built the plains of the San Fernando Valley and the L.A. basin. Some 20,000 years ago, during the great Ice Age, redwoods thrived in the Santa Monica mountains and mastodons grazed. Sabertooth tigers stalked giant ground sloths around the La Brea Tar Pits, and left behind their bones.
During that vast 3 million--year span, a section of earth gradually slid past another section of earth under what would become the future site of the Belmont Learning Complex in downtown Los Angeles. This left-lateral fault, moved by earthquakes inches at a time, is so comparatively unimportant that the geologist who confirmed its existence is not surprised that others missed it. And yet this minuscule geologic occurrence, confirmed within the last several months and announced last week, has almost certainly doomed a substantial portion of the half-built learning complex. In fact, the entire project, the nation’s most expensive high school, is in mortal jeopardy once again -- because of this fault and also because of a reasons that have nothing to do with seismic shaking.
Opponents of the star-crossed project could not resist an I-told-you-so moment, but if critics saw this coming, they sure kept awfully quiet about it. District officials themselves set these recent and startling events in motion by commissioning yet another study of the Belmont-area portion of the Los Angeles City Oil Field. The goal was to make absolutely sure that the mostly spent oil reserves were not rapidly recharging from below; they wanted to make sure the school‘s safety design would prevent petroleum or its hazardous byproducts from seeping onto playing fields or under buildings. The news on that score turned out to be good; there was no apparent cause for alarm.
But the oil-field consultants also flagged anomalies in the data that suggested an earthquake fault about 725 feet underground. School-district officials brought in more consultants. Workers, like hyperactive gophers, dug more than a mile’s worth of trenches four to 12 feet deep across the 35-acre site.
The process of theorizing and then confirming the fault has taken at least six months, and the work was, for the most part, carried out in secret, but schools Superintendent Roy Romer kept close watch. ”I visited that site and got down in the trenches with the geologists about five to seven times,“ said Romer this week. ”Until near the end, I didn‘t expect them to find anything.“ Romer was duty-bound to be optimistic: He’d been a driving force to finish Belmont in the first place, after the school board halted the project in January 2000 over different safety worries. The fear then was that students faced potential harm from oil-field-related gases. Romer invested his own prestige and the school system‘s political capital into resurrecting Belmont -- because more than $150 million had already been spent and because he needed the school to ease widespread overcrowding.
This latest problem arose during the recent school-bond campaign, on which Romer’s entire school-construction program depended; predictably, the Belmont conundrum was purposefully kept under wraps. ”There was a lot of concern about that,“ commented one district source, who asked to remain anonymous. ”You can imagine that we really didn‘t want this big issue to come up before the election.“ The belated discovery of a Belmont killer could have doomed the message of the bond campaign: that the school district had finally learned how to do things right.
Romer got his school bond, but still kept the matter quiet. Even school-board members were largely in the dark until last week, when the direst possibility was confirmed and had to be confronted.
The seismic danger, though uncertain, can’t be ruled out, said Kerry Sieh, a Caltech geology professor and senior consultant with Earth Consultants International, which was brought in by L.A. Unified. By way of comparison, the Belmont campus is probably substantially less threatened than University High in West L.A. University High has less up-to-date buildings, and it sits at the crest of a steep slope that was created by movement of the Santa Monica fault, an active fault, said Sieh, citing the work of other researchers. The size of the fault under University High dwarfs what‘s under Belmont. It’s like ”comparing a squirrel to a camel,“ said Sieh. And other district school sites, he added, including the Ambassador Hotel property and the proposed arts high school across from the downtown cathedral, could be vulnerable to faults like the one at Belmont.
But district officials have no stomach for an avoidable gamble at Belmont, ”Lots of buildings will likely have to be abandoned after the next big earthquake,“ said school-district health and safety director Angelo Bellomo. ”Some of them may be schools. But I don‘t want any of our new school buildings on that list.“
The region’s bedrock is full of largely unmapped, harmless faults that could look much like this one. ”If you were to strip bare the bedrock areas of downtown L.A., you would find inactive faults on every block or two,“ said Chris Wills, supervising geologist with the California Geological Survey. ”They‘re ubiquitous. There are faults all over the place that go underneath buildings of all kinds. An inactive fault beneath a structure is not a great reason to be concerned.“
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