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What Belmont Foes are Saying: Part 2

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11. Toxic hydrogen sulfide is an insurmountable problem. It’s harmful at almost any concentration.

In the case of Belmont, this argument has been most persuasively advanced by Kaye Kilburn (see "The Experts"), a USC professor who testified before the Belmont Commission that an alarm should sound and people should start running when hydrogen sulfide reaches a level of 1/10 of a part per million. (In other words, if a sample of air were divided into 1 million parts, one-tenth of one part would be hydrogen sulfide.)

State exposure standards are less demanding, and federal standards for hydrogen sulfide nonexistent. California sets acceptable ambient exposure levels (what you could breathe just by walking around outside) at .03 ppm per hour. But workplace standards are considerably less strict, with the Division of Occupational Safety and Health setting an average 10 ppm limit over eight hours, 15 ppm for 15 minutes, and an upper ceiling of 50 ppm.

But Kilburn’s much lower 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 has consistently gotten smaller and smaller. And hydrogen sulfide is undeniably toxic: The consequences of breathing hydrogen sulfide (H2S) include headaches, eye irritation, pulmonary damage and, in concentrations heavy enough, neural damage or death.

Yet it is possible to over-err on the side of safety. A 1999 federally funded study concluded, "There is no clear or convincing evidence in the scientific and medical literature that hydrogen sulfide causes adverse health effects at low concentrations," which the study defined as less than 10 parts per million. (Note: Kilburn’s standard is 1/10 of 1 part per million, a difference of two orders of magnitude.) A 1991 study reported that normal "mouth air" contains approximately 1 part per million of hydrogen sulfide. (A 1992 study set that measurement lower, at .052 parts per million.) Studies have found intestinal gas to contain hydrogen sulfide concentrations ranging from 0 to 10,000 parts per million. Animal feces contains amounts of hydrogen sulfide surpassing the Kilburn danger zone.

The air in San Bernardino approaches or exceeds Kilburn’s hydrogen sulfide danger zone about four days a year, according to data from the California Air Resources Board. And while no one would make a case for breathing the air in San Bernardino, keep in mind what Kilburn means regarding his danger zone. That’s the level he sets as potentially causing instantaneous and permanent brain damage.

If Kilburn is correct — and if his theories were reason enough for abandoning Belmont because safety systems don’t work — some sweeping and life-changing conclusions also would follow. Among them: Passengers should never ride L.A.’s subway, whose tunnels pass through pockets of hydrogen sulfide. And the Fairfax District’s Pan Pacific Park, which is built below ground level in the city’s High Potential Methane Zone, could be a deathtrap. Moreover, evacuations might be in order for the several schools and the thousands of homes and businesses that lie atop the same oil field as Belmont.

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12. Installing a safety system would take too long.

The school-board majority is doing its darnedest to make this a self-fulfilling prophecy. First, the board voted to put construction on hold in July 1999. Then, shortly thereafter, district officials stopped work on a safety analysis in midstream. If the analysis had been allowed to go forward, construction could have probably resumed some time ago, according to officials with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control.

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13. Installing a safety system would cost too much.

Whether the school opens or not, L.A. Unified will have invested some $200 million in the project. Consultants originally estimated that a safety system would run between $2 million and $10 million, including the cost of maintenance over 30 years. A worst-case scenario presented to the Belmont Commission (which reviewed the project in the latter part of 1999) set an upper-limit cost at $60 million, though that figure leaves professionals in the field, including those that analyzed the site for L.A. Unified, scratching their heads. They told the Weekly they just can’t get the numbers up that high. They made the same statements in testimony as part of an ongoing Belmont-related lawsuit.

The $60 million figure, however, was portrayed as conservative by Ira Reiner, the executive director of the Belmont Commission, who noted that expenses in construction projects frequently soar higher than their projected costs.

A safety system at Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach initially cost $1.5 million to design and install, and is running at approximately $153,000 a year to maintain since 1998, when it was activated. The ground under Hoag has hydrogen sulfide and methane in higher concentrations than Belmont. Hoag’s system has three layers of redundancy built into it, beginning with gas extraction wells and collection trenches that funnel the gas into a central processor. There also are sub-slab pipes with a blower that activates should gas somehow reach underneath the buildings, and there are ventilation systems inside the buildings attached to alarms.

 

The cost issue also cuts another way. Despite the expense of a safety system, finishing Belmont would cost $74 million less than building another school elsewhere, according to a September 1999 memo prepared by the district’s Independent Analysis Unit. This analysis presumes that the 35 acres of Belmont could, in fact, be replaced with a single school on an environmentally clean site. The district has been unable to obtain such a location in the downtown area.

(Some district officials have pinned their hopes of financial rescue upon winning a malpractice judgment against O’Melveny & Myers, the law firm that participated in the Belmont project on behalf of L.A. Unified. If the school district wins the lawsuit, an unfinished Belmont might enable L.A. Unified to collect more in damages. But the school system also could lose this litigation, driving up district costs further. Fundamentally, giving up on a half-finished school to do better in a lawsuit is an odd way to run a school district that is desperately short on classroom space.)

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14. There are faster, safer and less expensive alternatives to Belmont.

This was the view of former Chief Operating Officer Howard Miller, who recommended in January 2000 that the school board cancel the Belmont project. He estimated that other schools could be built in two to four years, as fast or faster, he said, than Belmont could be finished.

Most of his alternative sites turned out to be bum steers. Some had environmental problems, others unwilling sellers. A handful of sites remain promising, including the current location of the school district’s administrative headquarters. But nothing is close to breaking ground yet. Managers in the district’s real estate division are keen on finishing Belmont. They tell the Weekly that the district needs Belmont and whatever other downtown sites turn up to fully offset overcrowding.

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15. The school district can’t be trusted to keep Belmont safe.

This Assertion is perhaps the most sobering of all — because the school district has an abysmal environmental record in the view of internal and external critics. Consider, for example, this excerpt from the 1999 Rohman Report, which was commissioned by the school district: "This investigation found a widespread (although not universal) perception among [Environmental Safety and Health] staff that district managers discourage the clear reporting of environmental safety hazards, pressuring them instead to ‘spin’ or under-report these hazards in an effort to avoid offending other entities in the district." One industrial hygienist told investigators that staff was not encouraged to raise safety concerns. An environmental health specialist reported, "There is an unwritten policy in the District, you do not close a school for any environmental problem . . . It looks bad if you close a school and find nothing. It looks bad if you do find something. You never make students go home."

Current Health and Safety director Angelo Bellomo asserts that times have changed. "I think that the district can be trusted, and the way in which we have structured our review of these sites is by entering into agreements with regulatory agencies," he told the Weekly. "So even if you don’t believe that the district can change, you can bank on the fact that regulatory agencies will be playing an increasing role in overseeing this sort of project into the future. Furthermore, state law now requires it."

In a broader sense, if Los Angeles can’t trust L.A. Unified to manage a finished Belmont, then it’s time for the evacuations to begin. Safety problems of the same magnitude — or greater — can be found at scores of existing schools. Arguably, students face a greater health risk from cancer-causing asbestos — a common construction material in older schools — than they would from methane and hydrogen sulfide at Belmont, which would be free of asbestos.

And then there’s the risk from cancer-causing diesel fumes on badly maintained school buses, a clear and present danger that probably surpasses any realistic danger that methane and hydrogen sulfide pose at Belmont.

In truth, all these safety issues need to be fully addressed. Belmont ought to be one of the district’s safest schools; for one thing, it would be one of the only campuses built to current earthquake-safety codes.

 

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16. Belmont would be a magnet for future lawsuits: Anytime someone gets cancer, even 20 years from now — or has any other serious health problem — the district will be sued. This would be too great a cost to bear, worse than starting over at some other school site.

The two problems at Belmont are methane and hydrogen sulfide. Let’s start with methane. Methane is explosive, but not toxic. Students could not come back years later and successfully sue over methane exposure unless they also can prove that they were the victims of an explosion at Belmont.

Hydrogen sulfide is toxic, but not a carcinogen. A former Belmont student who contracted cancer would have a difficult time demonstrating that the illness was caused by a compound not known for being carcinogenic — especially because breathing the city’s air is by itself enough to cause cancer. So is riding in a poorly maintained diesel school bus. So is breathing the indoor air at an older campus if asbestos insulation, tiles and flooring are not well-maintained or properly removed.

Long-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide can certainly cause serious and permanent damage. But it would be well nigh impossible for a person to prove that he was exposed to harmful levels of hydrogen sulfide at Belmont for extended periods of time — partly because this scenario is extremely unlikely — and then equally difficult to link this exposure to health problems. There are, for example, numerous environmental sources of hydrogen sulfide, including sewers and refineries.

Of course, anyone can sue over anything, no matter how frivolous. But at some point, the facts of the case do matter and do influence the course and the amount of litigation.

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17. The risk can’t be reduced to zero. Therefore Belmont is not safe and shouldn’t be finished.

No campus — past, present or future — has a risk factor of zero. There is a small amount of risk associated with sending students to Belmont. But the alternative is not zero risk, but other sorts of risk that may, on balance, add up to much more risk than at the Belmont Learning Complex.

The school district, for example, already operates eight schools that are either directly over or within a quarter mile of the L.A City Oil Field, the same oil field that underlies a portion of the Belmont Learning Complex. Their wells plugged and abandoned to the modern, stricter standards in play at Belmont. Moreover, Belmont would have a safety system designed to keep explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide from entering the buildings. For most of the other campuses, the school district relies on alarm systems that only go off once methane has already gotten into the building. L.A. Unified also operates a school, Hancock Park Elementary, that is directly across the street from the city’s worst-ever methane explosion (at the Ross Dress F,or Less in 1985). Hancock Park Elementary also is built atop an oil field — as is most of the Fairfax District.

No L.A. Unified student has ever caught fire in a methane explosion at school. But in 1995 two students were killed in a traffic accident involving a bus. Opening Belmont (and turning old Belmont into a middle school) would reduce the amount of busing and other driving needed to get students to school. How would that affect risk factors — especially given a recent study concluding that poorly maintained school buses are leaking carcinogenic levels of diesel fumes into the cabin?

Moreover, new Belmont would have none of the carcinogenic asbestos that is widespread in older campuses, and it also would be built to modern earthquake-safety codes.

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18. Tests show that other schools aren’t as contaminated as Belmont. So Belmont should not be finished.

Tests do not show any such thing. The soil conditions at other oil-field (or landfill-adjacent) campuses is largely unknown. So far, the school district has applied a different standard to Belmont (a new campus) than to its existing schools. At Belmont, analysts performed extensive soil testing and found widespread methane and spot concentrations of hydrogen sulfide in the ground. At other schools, the vast bulk of testing has occurred inside the buildings by taking air samples. There is a plausible reason for this, though the upshot is test results that shouldn’t be directly compared.

At Belmont, the safety division tests soil because it wants extensive information — for the purpose of designing a safety system or even making a go/no-go decision on the project itself. At existing schools, the district determines only if there is an immediate danger inside the buildings right now.

Thus, the school system hasn’t performed soil-vapor tests at Union Avenue Elementary. But such tests have been conducted by Environ, a reputable environmental outfit. Environ found significant levels of methane and hydrogen sulfide in the ground — very similar to Belmont’s. The caveat here is that Environ was working for the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers, whom the district is suing for alleged Belmont-related malpractice.

 

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