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A Tragic Comedy of Errors

Environmental handling of the Belmont Learning Complex site is tantamount to a modern sketch from the Three Stooges or the Keystone Cops. Any real estate developer who performed in a fashion similar to the Los Angeles Unified School District would be out of business, sued by his partners and guilty of gross negligence and criminality.

Belmont’s mismanagement started at the very beginning. Self-certification of a hastily completed environmental-impact report, lack of due diligence and the start of construction without hazardous-gas mitigation and site-contamination management — all of this led to the current debacle.

The Belmont site has been understood to be a highly fractured, gas-seepage zone for many decades. This knowledge alone would have been adequate information necessary to compel hazardous-gas mitigation in accordance with building-code regulations. This alone would have been adequate background to suggest that the Los Angeles Fire Department should have recommended to the State Architect’s Office (which oversees school construction) that gas-mitigation systems be made a part of the project.

Nevertheless, the developer and L.A. Unified went forward without mitigation and without government oversight, and failed to notify the appropriate state and local agencies of the gas concentrations found on the site. When finally shut down, the school was largely completed and not one element of the most basic gas mitigation had been put into place.

Compare Belmont to Playa Vista. Both share similarly intense potential uses. Both sites have similar methane concentrations. Belmont has far more hazardous hydrogen-sulfide conditions. Nevertheless, Playa Vista is moving forward with state-of-the-art gas-mitigation systems, including aquifer degassing, passive venting and active backup venting systems. None of the above has been installed at Belmont. The Playa Capital Corporation performed investigations, submitted analytical data to government agencies and the public, and designed mitigation. The school district accomplished none of the above in a timely manner at Belmont.

To make matters worse, incompetence and/or fraud led to overreaction and finger pointing. Commissions were formed to convene hearings to get at the truth. But the commissions were carefully screened, limited in both scope and time, and doomed to failure by LAUSD restrictions, controls and micromanagement. Indeed, the politics of Belmont dictated the outcome. The great beast swallowed its tail, satiated its appetite and lumbered into a deep sleep. Only the taxpayers were at a loss; a $200 million loss with the greatest catastrophe in Los Angeles development history sitting as a white elephant.

Belmont can be salvaged. Mitigation exists to complete the project — and without prohibitive costs. Whether or not the giant will lick its wounds, assist the taxpayers in recovering their losses from the guilty parties, and move forward with safe occupancy of the white elephant is yet to be seen. Unfortunately, the school district may not have learned a lesson by the sorrowful events of Belmont. Mismanagement, taxpayer waste and a lousy education still occupy the front row of the politically charged theater of L.A. Unified, and the taxpayers continue to bleed vital resources down a dark chasm.

Fleet E. Rust is the president of GeoScience Analytical, Inc., a firm that specializes in designing and monitoring systems to control naturally occurring methane. His company has performed some soil testing at the Belmont site and also estimated what a safety system would cost there.

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