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What Belmont Foes are Saying: Part 3

19. No school district has installed such an extensive safety system. Don’t use kids as guinea pigs.

The premise of this assertion could be true. Weekly researchers have not found a school with as large and detailed a methane safety system as the one contemplated for Belmont. But that factoid is more than a little misleading. There are definitely other Southern California schools that have been built on oil fields, it’s just that their safety systems are inferior to the one that would be installed at Belmont — or they have no safety system at all.

More than a dozen currently operating Los Angeles Unified schools are built on or adjacent to oil fields or landfills (which also emit dangerous gases). Their safety systems run the gamut — from nothing to something — but they don’t approach the quality and breadth of what’s anticipated at Belmont.

Outside L.A. proper, Beverly Hills High also is located on an oil field, with 19 active on-site oil wells, according to the Division of Oil and Gas. In Orange County, Brea-Olinda High School, completed in 1989, sits on an old oil field and has no safety system whatsoever, according to published reports.

None of which proves that these other schools are unsafe, because oil-field-related problems vary from site to site. But it’s pure tunnel vision to suggest that students at Belmont are guinea pigs based solely on the notion that the school lies above an oil field, as is making the same claim because Belmont would have an extensive safety system. That’s the equivalent of dinging the project for precisely the reason that it’s a step ahead of other schools operating on oil fields.

Looking beyond schools, hundreds of houses and apartment buildings built on L.A. oil fields have either no methane protection or something comparatively primitive. "Lesser" levels of protection from oil-field-related methane can be found at the Central Library, at the Park LaBrea housing complex, and in Chinatown, to name a few examples. There is "lesser" or no protection against potential hydrogen sulfide exposure at MacArthur Park and Lafayette Park, which are open areas near or above the L.A. City Oil Field — just like the playing fields at Belmont.

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20. You can’t retrofit a safety system onto a half-built campus. So the only way to make Belmont safe would be to tear everything down and start over.

The conclusion is not correct, but there is an issue here. The heart of a methane barrier-and-venting system is installed below the buildings. And Belmont is half-built. The good news is that the concrete slab has not been poured in most places, so there is still a ready opportunity to install a safety system, according to engineers who do this for a living. The bad news is that, in one section of the campus, the slab already has been poured, and, to complicate matters, it’s a slab that supports the structure of the building. Retrofitting a venting-and-barrier system would likely be more expensive and potentially more difficult as well.

The unprotected portion is at the corner of Beaudry and First, the part of the property farthest away from the heaviest oil-drilling activity. But trace amounts of methane have nonetheless been found in the vicinity. John Sepich, the methane specialist who designed the first proposed safety system, told the Weekly, based on his testing, that methane protection was simply unnecessary at that corner, but new LAUSD safety division director Angelo Bellomo disagrees.

This corner was originally envisioned as the hub of a small shopping center, above which there are several floors of parking. Above the parking are classroom buildings. The open-air parking floors would spare the classrooms from any methane accumulation, but that doesn’t help the businesses or offices that would occupy the ground floor below.

Even if Sepich is right, it’s unlikely that the school district would follow his original, more limited plan at this point. Bellomo contends that the only reasonable, publicly justifiable approach is to protect all the buildings.

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21. The science of safety systems is primitive and the oversight is poor.

This statement is absolutely true. But paradoxically, it doesn’t bear fundamentally on whether the Belmont site could or would operate safely.

Methane systems come in all sorts, sizes and degrees of quality; the Fairfax District episode effectively jump-started a local cottage industry in methane control, where the desire for inexpensive and pragmatic solutions far out-paced real expertise. Unfortunately, there were and are no degrees in methane-ology or vapor-barrier science. Nor does the state have a certification program for this line of work. Engineers learn how to do this stuff essentially by doing it – the city defines a "qualified engineer" as "a civil engineer currently registered in the State of California and possessing experience in the design of subsurface gas control systems." The city generally approves firms for such work based on a firm’s history of having already installed methane safety systems. You can bet there was a degree of trial and error early on, though system designers could draw on technology developed for the petroleum industry and for landfills.

One early disaster, possibly due to faulty installation or design, was the barrier system for Wilshire Courtyard, an office building completed in 1987. "Oil was oozing through the walls and the building had methane sensors that were continually going off," says Louis Pandolfi, whose firm GeoScience Analytical monitors the building for methane accumulation. Even today, he says, "you’ll just see the oil coming through the subterranean walls. Gas is in the building at all times in the lower levels." Venting fans must run 24 hours a day and the intruding oil must be physically cleaned away.

Responsibility for government oversight of safety systems also is murky. In Los Angeles, the Fire Department signs off on methane alarms for all construction. The Department of Building and Safety signs off on systems to control methane, but not for schools, which it considers to be under state jurisdiction. (Most of the local inspectors also learned by doing; again, there is no degree program in this field.) The state’s school building program lacks specialists who are qualified to review methane systems, which probably leaves oversight with the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which had already agreed, in midstream, to take on Belmont.

But something out there is probably working. Hundreds of buildings all over the L.A. basin have methane-mitigation systems that, to all appearances, are functioning as intended. How pervasive are these systems? L.A.’s "Potential Methane Zone" covers roughly 400 city blocks or 3 square miles. Every structure in it must have at least a methane alarm. But this regulation is typically enforced by inspectors only during remodeling projects, property sales or the construction of new buildings.

When methane is discovered at construction sites outside this zone, these sites too fall under the city’s methane regulations. Belmont, ironically, is outside the city’s established methane zone. So is the new wing at the Central Library and the Red Line subway, both of which had methane-mitigation systems installed after methane was discovered. The technology for such systems is relatively simple compared to other aspects of construction engineering.

To counter any uncertainties, the Belmont system is likely to have a level of redundancy practically unheard of in other construction projects. That is, if the first line of defense fails, there will be backups and various alarms. One alarm, for example, could sound if the venting system goes down. This setup would provide a safety margin of days or even weeks before there could be a significant accumulation of gas that would set off a methane alarm within the building itself.

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