The Belmont Site Cannot Be Made Safe

Editors Note: The Weekly was unable to confirm a number of the assertions in this essay. Also, the original submission by Mr. Endres was 3,000 words. This version — condensed by our editors — is about 1,150 words in length.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has spent million of dollars in performing environmental studies, but has failed to perform an oil-field risk assessment. The school district also failed to perform a geological assessment of the Elysian Park blind-thrust fault that directly underlies the Belmont school site. This conduct was in violation of state laws that prohibit the construction of schools over hazardous-substance release sites, and over dangerous seismic faults. Additionally, this failure to conduct proper environmental studies of the site conditions resulted in disaster after disaster once the enormous grading operations were undertaken. These grading operations cut into the shallow pockets of crude oil, hydrogen sulfide and a vast array of other oil-field chemicals that were directly below the site.

The Los Angeles City Oil Field is very shallow and outcrops to the surface in the area of the Belmont school site. A highly permeable fault plane, formed by the Elysian Park blind-thrust fault system, provides a conduit for oil, gas and other chemicals to migrate to the surface from deeper oil-field deposits.

These chemicals move to the surface, and under the school site, in a nearly endless supply. Methane and hydrogen-sulfide gases have been found pervasive throughout the entire school site. Oil-field chemicals including arsenic, chromium, vanadium, nickel and many other hazardous substances exist within the soil throughout the athletic fields. Most of these chemicals have never been tested regarding the health risks posed to children.

This presents a serious inhalation danger, especially to children engaged in athletic activities. Additionally, it is uncertain what health consequences will result when children come in contact with the myriad oil-field chemicals that exist within the near-surface soils when engaged in athletic events such as baseball and football where direct contact with the soil is inevitable.

During grading operations, hydrogen-sulfide levels of 200 parts per million (ppm) were routinely encountered. And oil wells, now owned by L.A. Unified and located on the western end of the school site, have been measured to emit in excess of 300 ppm of hydrogen sulfide into the atmosphere as the wells are being pumped.

In a Los Angeles Times "commentary" dated November 15, 1999, by Dr. Kaye H. Kilburn M.D., a professor of medicine at the University of Southern California, provided the following comments about the Belmont site:

    1. Hydrogen-sulfide gas at the site is a killer; any decision to proceed with the project must be based on tests of its effects.
    2. It kills by combining with the iron in a crucial enzyme that lets our cells use oxygen. A large dose, one breath or two, stops our metabolic machine.
    3. We die, unable to use surrounding oxygen. Lesser doses kill the more susceptible cells in the brain, heart and kidney.
    4. Effects of small doses accumulate so that vital functions deteriorate insidiously.
    5. When the brain deteriorates, the ability to think, reason and remember decreases.
    6. Vision constricts from the sides, like looking down a tunnel.
    7. Balance fails in the dark.
    8. The speed of reaction slows.
    9. The poisoned people look normal but behave as if they were 80 or 90 years old
    10. Hydrogen sulfide–exposed children have trouble recalling lessons and reciting, and they lose the ability to read. They eventually drop out of school.

Dr. Kilburn concludes by stating that safe levels are below 1 ppm (with the caveat that .1 ppm should be the level to ensure safety of children). To thrust Belmont students into the role of canaries in the coal mine is immoral.

The Los Angeles Fire Department has reported that over the years, it’s had to put out fires that were caused by the leaking oil-field gases. This would typically occur during the rainy season when the leaking gas was ignited by lightning bolts. The environmental reports prepared by the LAUSD have failed to disclose any of these dangerous conditions. None of the mitigation systems proposed for the site have addressed the very serious hydrogen-sulfide problem.

Throughout the grading and construction phase of the Belmont Learning Center, every effort was taken to conceal the true dangers of the site. The history of the fraud and cover-up of the environmental dangers of the site are well illustrated in the September 1999 "Internal Audit and Special Investigations Unit Report" prepared by the L.A. Unified Inspector General Don Mullinax.

By October 1998, L.A. Unified was aware that serious oil-field gas problems existed throughout the entire site. An internal letter written by project coordinator Ray Rodriguez noted: "We had believed that gas would most likely be discovered in the areas of planned open space. This is an area higher in elevation and closer to the old abandoned oil wells than the proposed classroom buildings. The data from the survey indicated that, of the samples analyzed, methane gas was present in areas that were at lower elevations and further away from the oil field than expected; the sample with the highest concentration was taken from an area adjacent to the administration building site." (See Mullinax Report, exhibit 220.)

This is representative of many other internal documents that reveal surprise after surprise regarding the discovery of dangerous levels of oil-field gases during the grading and construction phase.

Methane specialist John Sepich was hired to design a methane-monitoring and -ventilation system. However, this system was designed to deal with the methane problem only, and was limited to only some of the buildings.

Even if the planned mitigation system had been installed, it would have been highly defective. Recent smoke tests performed at the installation of the Liquid Boot product for gas control at a housing project currently under construction confirmed the product to be highly defective because it had many leaks, even immediately after installation.

The hydrogen-sulfide mitigation system installed at Hoag Hospital site in Newport Beach, California, provides some insight into these problems. Gas-migration problems, including hydrogen sulfide, were carefully studied over a 10-year period before construction began. Vent pipes were installed below ground using an active suction system. Huge scrubbers were installed to deal with the enormous problems created by the presence of hydrogen sulfide. The efforts of LAUSD in downplaying the significance of hydrogen sulfide means that the environmental studies will have to be reevaluated. Millions of additional dollars will be required to evaluate this problem alone. Furthermore, there is no assurance that a solution can be found. All of the evidence reveals that the site cannot be mitigated for hydrogen sulfide.

Measurements have revealed that the hydrogen-sulfide levels are increasing with time. Accordingly, the enormous problems in dealing with this gas could become worse. There have been no studies to evaluate this potential disaster. What can be predicted with certainty is that the cost impacts will dominate the ultimate costs required to provide mitigation for the site.

Bernard Endres is an oil, gas and environmental consultant (see "The Experts") frequently cited by Belmont opponents as providing the scientific basis for their assertions that the Belmont project is unsalvageable and that the site would be extremely dangerous no matter what was done to address the environmental problems.

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