What is all the fuss about methane gas? Can engineers protect the Belmont Learning Center from it? Yes! Methane and hydrogen sulfide have bubbled out of the ground from the tar pits of La Brea to the city of Brea, from Newport Beach to Santa Barbara since before recorded time. The city of Los Angeles building code devotes a chapter to methane mitigation.

Methane engineers know that simple, inexpensive mitigation systems can insure health and safety. Then why would anyone want us to believe the Belmont site can never really be made safe?

Common sense has been shoved aside so some politicos could pose as saviors, so unions could settle old labor scores, so anti-development activists could now push a methane hot button on the city’s Westside, so Valley secessionists could promote the debacle as their raison d’être. Belmont has been an absolute indulgence for all, aside from thousands of school children in need of decent classrooms.

The media fueled methane fever with headlines that “worldwide engineering precedents” would be set; that methane costs might be $60 million; that, if built, the school ought to be left unoccupied for the first five years; and that still there could be no guarantees. Our fair city was treated to, as one pundit put it, the full Belmonty. The LAUSD’s Safety Team was clever enough not to include a qualified engineer in their ranks. Engineers match problems with solutions; they use dull terms such as low-risk, and engage in such tedious perspicacity as “value engineering.”

A special commission, the Belmont Commission, was created, and did retain a professional engineer, who said new Belmont could be protected from methane for a fraction of the Safety’s Team’s doomsday cost estimates. An august majority of the commission concurred that the school could be safely built. Political antagonists who had actually created the commission assuaged this reversal by publishing a contrary minority report.

And now, subsequent testing around town has shown that the existing Belmont High and numerous other LAUSD properties with no protection whatsoever have been occupied for decades over the same soil gas. For anyone who honestly embraces the unsafe-at-any-price Belmont Learning Center hoax, only total hypocrisy allows keeping children in the unmitigated older schools. But for those who recognize that engineered solutions exist for new Belmont, there are also engineered solutions for old Belmont and the rest. There is no physical or moral crisis. And as several local politicians can no doubt testify, there is little political capital in thwarting school construction.

Southern California is safely developing above the ubiquitous methane soil gas. Basic engineering principles are not made irrelevant by special-interest groups. Civil engineering has been called the world’s second oldest profession. Refusal to join in the first oldest profession makes professional engineers unwelcome partners in the dishonest treatment of environmental issues.

John Sepich is a registered civil engineer who specializes in methane-safety systems. He was hired by Belmont’s private developer to design the original safety system at the school site. Work was halted on the project before his design was put into place. Besides defending his own work at Belmont, Sepich has repeatedly insisted that the environmental problems at Belmont can be easily and inexpensively addressed.

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