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The Experts

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Bernard Endres
Kaye H. Kilburn

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BERNARD ENDRES

It’s hard not to like Bernie Endres (see "The Belmont Site Cannot Be Made Safe"). The 64-year-old engineer delivers insights regarding oil fields with a patience, congeniality and professorial air that’s both appealing and persuasive. Besides, Bernie Endres is one of the "good guys," someone who opposes rich developers and helps environmentalists without asking anything in return. And when it comes to oil fields and methane gas and soil toxins, he obviously knows what he’s talking about.

Or does he?

An engineer with a law degree and a correspondence-course Ph.D, Bernard Endres is a hero of this city’s extreme anti- set: anti-Belmont, anti-Playa Vista, anti-oil company. A mainstay at press conferences and public hearings, he’s become nothing less than the voice of scientific authority for environmentalists fighting Playa Vista as well as opponents of the Belmont Learning Complex project, who insist that the half-built school would never be safe because of toxic and explosive gases.

His admirers regard him like an oracle; he is undeniably knowledgeable. One methane specialist said he respected Endres even though he disagrees with him about Belmont. Another methane specialist, however, dismissed Endres as an opportunistic bomb-thrower operating under the color of expertise.

The Belmont school site, says Endres, is geologically unique – perhaps in all the world. He calls the Belmont site an "outcrop" where oil deposits from underground seep to the surface. Putting a school there "would be equivalent to trying to build something over Old Faithful," he told the Weekly during a series of interviews, because crude oil and dangerous gases from below would perpetually push toward the surface.

That’s a powerful argument. If Endres is right, it’s end of story for Belmont. No sane public official ought to consider opening a school there. But Endres has no proof for this theory that is accepted by authorities contacted by the Weekly. His views are not shared by the state’s Division of Oil and Gas, nor the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which agreed to oversee safety measures at Belmont.

Nor is the Endres’ analysis accepted by professional engineers who design safety systems for the hundreds of Southern California buildings constructed on oil fields. Endres has never installed nor designed a methane-control system. Of course, the engineers who actually do this work are hired by developers or public entities that want to build things, which influences their "can-do" perspective. But it’s striking that the Weekly could find no professional in the field who agreed with Endres. Some said that making Belmont safe would be easy; others characterized the task as more challenging, but still straightforward.

And yet to sustain his argument against finishing Belmont on safety grounds, Endres must be right about the uniqueness of Belmont; otherwise, the numerous other schools built over oil fields also would be endangering students’ lives. But Endres has not talked up the hazards of other schools.

Whatever the case, pundits and policy makers who want to believe Endres have no trouble believing. Endres has twice been lauded in anti-Playa Vista columns by New Times columnist Jill Stewart. Assemblyman Scott Wildman forwarded Endres’ findings to state officials. Former state senator Tom Hayden and county Supervisor Mike Antonovich shared the dais at a press conference with him. And Endres’ theories about Belmont’s uniqueness have been parroted without close scrutiny by editorial writers and reporters for the Daily News, by former legislative staffer Bryan Steele (who wrote a book about Belmont) and even by school-board member Julie Korenstein.

Endres is certain that a safety system could never work at the half-finished Belmont school because crude oil and water would clog it, and because hydrogen sulfide would combine with water to form sulfuric acid that would corrode any system. And once something started to go wrong, "then there’s no way to repair it other than tearing down the building." He added: "All it would take would be one penetration and the gas would flow into the building in a very concentrated form." He also asserts that the mere presence of hydrogen sulfide gas (which is toxic) disqualifies the site for school use.

Endres has been credited with a variety of credentials for being qualified to make such claims. Columnist Stewart called Endres a "scientist." The Daily News variously has referred to Endres as a "gas-mitigation expert," a "petroleum engineer," a "petroleum engineering expert" and a "petroleum scientist."

More specifically, Endres graduated magna cum laude from the University of Detroit in Aeronautical Engineering. He earned a master’s degree in engineering and mathematics from the University of Michigan in 1963, and a law degree from Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. Endres was admitted to the California Bar in 1979. His Ph.D. in Systems Safety Engineering is from Pacific Western University, a school that furnishes degrees through correspondence courses. Endres has co-authored oil-field-related articles to trade journals and to a published anthology.

 

Endres was hired in the late 1980s as an expert in a lawsuit against McFarland Energy after the 1985 Fairfax District methane explosion – which injured about two dozen people. On behalf of the litigants, Endres accused McFarland of causing the explosion through unsafe oil-drilling practices. McFarland hired its own experts who attributed the blast to other causes. McFarland settled the case without an admission of guilt.

In a couple of Daily News articles about Belmont or Playa Vista, the paper defined Endres as the "lead investigator" into the Fairfax blast. Other Belmont activists also have identified him as such, though he did not make that claim in recent interviews with the Weekly.

"I wish we had a lead investigator," said Joseph Cobarrubias, who was, at the time, the city’s chief engineering geologist and the primary author of the 1985 city task-force report on the Ross Dress For Less explosion. "I could have used a lot of help. I never laid eyes on the man." Cobarrubias later chaired the second and final task force that examined Fairfax’s methane issues. He added of Endres: "He never submitted reports to the city. I never heard of the guy before his testimony" to the Belmont Commission, which reviewed the project in 1999.

Regarding the Fairfax incident, the methane task forces were not able to reach a definitive conclusion about what caused the explosion.

But then as now, Endres had strong opinions. As for Belmont, could anything have salvaged that project? the Weekly asked. Endres could think of no economical solution. Building a safe Belmont, he says, would have required placing the school and its playgrounds on top of giant concrete stilts.

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KAYE H. KILBURN

Kaye Kilburn is a man on a mission. His crusade is to do battle with hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a deadly toxin, the study of which has consumed a substantial portion of his academic career. As a USC professor with valid academic credentials, Kilburn has the ultimate trump card when it comes to the Belmont Learning Complex. The presence of hydrogen sulfide in the soil, he says, makes the place a death trap.

This assessment has made Kilburn, along with environmental activist Bernard Endres, the twin Belmont killers, who together have lent academic authority to those opposing the project. Kilburn’s views, however, taken to their logical conclusion, would apply well beyond Belmont. It could easily follow that much of Los Angeles is an apocalypse waiting to happen.

Without question, hydrogen sulfide, known for its distinctive rotten-egg odor, is bad news. The consequences of breathing substantial doses include headaches, eye irritation, pulmonary damage and, in concentrations heavy enough, neural damage or death.

As with other academic debates, however, the field of hydrogen sulfide research is a continuum. At one end are the voices who minimize the harm of hydrogen sulfide – the same breed perhaps who once thought that lead was OK in drinking water. At the far, far other end of the continuum is the 69-year-old Kilburn.

The mainstream view holds that nothing conclusive is known about the long-term effects of minute, chronic exposure to hydrogen sulfide. Not so, says Kilburn: "Hydrogen sulfide probably kills brain cells at first pass."

Kilburn has taught at various medical schools, including Duke University, since he graduated from the University of Utah’s School of Medicine in 1954, and has been a professor at USC since 1980. He has authored several studies on hydrogen sulfide’s neural effects. Even minute exposure over a month impacts the brain, he says, wiping out memory and the ability to concentrate.

Kilburn sets the potential danger level at one-tenth of a part per million (that is, if you divide the air into 1 million parts, one-tenth of 1 part would be hydrogen sulfide). At that concentration, alarms should sound and people should run away upwind, he testified in 1999 before the Belmont Commission, which was assembled to review the Belmont project.

Kilburn’s danger threshold cannot be cavalierly dismissed, because government agencies typically set exposure-limit levels for adults, not children — whose developing bodies are more sensitive to toxins. And health standards generally become more exacting over time. Thus, the "acceptable" level of lead in water has consistently gotten smaller and smaller.

Kilburn says preventing hydrogen sulfide from rising to the surface at Belmont is impossible. Any viewpoint to the contrary "is about as ridiculous a belief as in the tooth fairy…Impervious layers are not. Gases, particularly hydrogen sulfide, go through concrete."

 

Hydrogen sulfide research, he adds, needs to be revolutionized. "It’s just like Einstein had to ferret out all the people who believed that there was no connection between mass and energy," he says. "Now we’ve got another field that’s well on it’s way to being revolutionized."

"I know people object," he concedes, but "the truth is the truth. It doesn’t take repetition to know what the truth is. You have a mechanism. You have 150 years of killing people from hydrogen sulfide overdose."

In interviews, Kilburn gamely tried to apply his theories consistently. Subways in Los Angeles, he acknowledges, might also be deadly because the tunnels pass through pockets of hydrogen sulfide and because, following his Belmont logic, safety systems don’t work. Then there are the eight public schools built on or near the same oil field as Belmont. It would also follow that these schools should be evacuated as well as hundreds of homes and business also on the 800-acre oil field. And portions of the Wilshire District have concentrations of hydrogen sulfide comparable to Belmont, according to a study completed for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

On the Westside, hydrogen sulfide in the Ballona Wetlands makes that territory too a danger zone. Not only should the Playa Vista development be halted, he says, that entire area "shouldn’t be a place where humans go." The very future of Los Angeles may be at stake given what he’s learned about Belmont and Ballona. "If those are two examples of what Los Angeles is like," says Kilburn, "then we need to take some serious looks at the future of the city, because the dangers are high."

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