The tiny city of Signal Hill is surrounded by Long Beach. It‘s little more than an incorporated oil field with a nice view. So you can’t blame people there for wanting to build on oil fields — and even on top of old oil wells. It‘s all they’ve got.
“There are buildings over wells everywhere in Signal Hill, and probably lots of places in L.A. and Long Beach,” said Gary Jones, the city‘s community-development director. “The proof’s in the pudding. There are literally hundreds of buildings built on oil wells with no problems.”
But there have been some problems. In 1985, a methane-caused explosion at a Ross Dress for Less store in the Fairfax District injured about two dozen people and presented the alarming spectacle of methane-fed flames licking up through cracks in the pavement. But what does the Fairfax incident have to do with the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex? In 1985, buildings in Fairfax had no protection against methane. Many still don‘t.
Just the same, critics of the Belmont project speak ominously of “Fairfax,” and have other reasons for wanting to abandon the $200 million school. Here is a sampling of their objections, with responses compiled from months of interviews and research. (For more complete answers, see the Belmont Web-page link at www.laweekly.com.)
Belmont is a toxic-waste dump. It’s too dangerous to build on this site.
This is a myth. Belmont is a former oil-drilling site — nothing more, nothing less — and its fundamental environmental sins stem from that.
You shouldn‘t build on oil fields.
A large portion of Southern California is built over oil fields, including much of Beverly Hills, the Fairfax District and parts of downtown, as well as large swaths of Long Beach, all of Signal Hill and, in Orange County, a tract stretching from West Newport to Sunset Beach. The Belmont site was covered by homes and apartments, along with a smattering of businesses, until most of the land was cleared to make way for Central City West, a massive development knocked out by the recession of the early 1990s.
You shouldn’t build on “old” oil fields — that is, oil fields where extensive drilling predates a modern safety standards. Old wells are perpetual hazards, and many old wells can‘t even be found.
Without question, old wells are potentially hazardous, but the Belmont site is hardly unique in having old oil wells. To date, of about 1,200 known wells in the expansive L.A. City Oil Field (and many well sites are not known), only 39 have been plugged or re-plugged to modern standards since the state began to manage the effort in 1985. (About 60 of the wells are still active.)
“It seems reasonable to say that hundreds of buildings have been built over old oil wells,” said Division of Oil and Gas spokesman Don Drysdale. “We don’t have a solid number, but just common sense tells you that there are probably hundreds, if not more. There are buildings in Los Angeles that have collectors, things that collect oozing oil. There is one building that uses the natural gas for energy purposes.”
The entire Park LaBrea housing complex sits on the Salt Lake Oil Field — an “old” oil field — as does the Beverly Center. Even now, new commercial and residential construction is rising on the “old” oil field in the Fairfax District.
You can‘t build schools on oil fields. Schools require a higher safety standard.
The school district already runs eight schools that are either directly over or within a quarter mile of the L.A. City Oil Field.
Belmont is unique and uniquely dangerous.
Although it is impossible to disprove that Belmont is somehow unique, and thus uniquely dangerous, this assertion also has never been proven. So far, the Weekly has found only one person with detailed knowledge on the subject who is making this claim. He is Bernard Endres, an engineer with a law degree who earned his Ph.D. in Systems Safety Engineering in 1991 through a correspondence course.
The Division of Oil and Gas does not subscribe to Endres’ claim of Belmont‘s fatal uniqueness. Nor does the state’s Department of Toxic Substances Control, which oversees environmental issues at school sites. Nor do professionals who design safety systems for oil-field sites — or at least the Weekly could not find any.
Belmont is contaminated and could never be cleaned up.
It is absolutely true that the Belmont site can never be completely “cleaned up.” Once an oil field, always an oil field. A safety system would have to deal with dangerous oil byproducts, namely methane and hydrogen sulfide. Although hardly a geyser, this oil field, like many others in the city, has an inexhaustible supply of those oil-field gases. They can be diverted or, alternatively, diluted to harmless levels.
Methane safety systems don‘t work: Barriers meant to keep methane out of buildings have an astonishingly high failure rate. It is highly likely that gases will leak into Belmont’s buildings with disastrous effects.
This concern has some factual basis. Each of the two prominent methane barriers has detractors who cite its “failures,” or leaks. Some of this finger-pointing comes from the makers or sellers of rival safety systems who have sought to discredit competitors. Engineers have attributed the failures to improper installation.
The Belmont system would likely have a level of redundancy practically unheard of in other construction projects. That is, if the first line of defense should fail, there would be backups and 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.
Even if the buildings are safe, the playing fields are not: There‘s danger from hydrogen sulfide, which is toxic.
Hydrogen sulfide is indeed toxic, and spot concentrations of it have been measured under the Belmont site — in particular, under the baseball field. Some experts, however, scoff at the need for special protection against hydrogen sulfide at Belmont. They note that contamination by hydrogen sulfide was by no means widespread.
Others take the potential risk seriously. Even now, it’s easy to smell hydrogen sulfide in the neighborhood next to the Belmont site. Somehow, hydrogen sulfide is making it to ground level. One likely a source is improperly plugged oil wells, which remain common in that area and oil wells that are still active.
Safety experts have suggested that burying a permeable layer of sand or gravel would disperse soil gases, preventing hydrogen sulfide from reaching harmful concentrations. This system could have a built-in backup plan: collection pipes leading to a tank.
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, 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 one-tenth of one 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 are 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 ignored, 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 H2S include headaches, eye irritation, pulmonary damage and, in heavy enough concentrations, neural damage or death.
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 ppm. (Note: Kilburn‘s standard is one-tenth of 1 ppm, a difference of two orders of magnitude.) A 1991 study reported that normal “mouth air” contains approximately 1 ppm of hydrogen sulfide. Studies have found intestinal gas to contain hydrogen sulfide concentrations ranging from 0 to 10,000 ppm. Animal feces contain 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 per year, according to the California Air Resources Board. No one is suggesting that we breathe the air in San Bernardino, but keep in mind what Kilburn means by his “danger zone.” It is the level above which, he says, a child could suffer 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.
The school district can‘t be trusted to keep Belmont safe.
This assertion is perhaps the most sobering of all. The school district has an abysmal environmental record in the view of both 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 Health and Safety] staff that district managers discourage the clear reporting of environmental safety hazards, pressuring them instead to ’spin‘ or underreport 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 a safety concerns. An environmental health specialist reported, “There is an unwritten policy in the district [that] 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 at the school district. He also notes that new laws require oversight, by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, of school projects with environmental problems. Moreover, the district would likely contract a qualified outside firm to monitor and maintain the Belmont safety system.
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. Methane is explosive, but not toxic. Students could not come back years later and successfully sue over methane exposure unless they also could prove that they were the victims of an explosion at Belmont.
Hydrogen sulfide is toxic, but not a known 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 haven‘t been properly removed.
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.
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. It’s likely that none of the wells at these schools has been 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.
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 are 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-vapor 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. The upshot is apples and oranges, 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 gono-go decision on the project itself. At existing schools, the district determines only whether there is an immediate danger inside the buildings.
No school district has installed such an extensive safety system. Don‘t use kids as guinea pigs.
Other Southern California schools 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.