After 10 years as an oil field hand, Ruben Sierra knows every tank, every pump, every abandoned well hidden away in backyards and alleys of the rundown neighborhood west of downtown Los Angeles where the aroma of crude oil hangs in the air like an omen.
And what he sees going on there today perplexes him.
There's a massive new apartment complex rising directly atop an oil well Sierra worked only a dozen years ago. But just two blocks down the street, the Belmont Learning Complex, more than half completed, stands like a derelict, its construction on hold while the Board of Education weighs the potential environmental hazards to students.
"If it's not all right to build Belmont, why is it all right to build this?" Sierra asks, pointing to an apartment.
It's a simple but profound question.
The oil field responsible for the explosive methane and toxic hydrogen sulfide at the Belmont site extends for four miles in a band that contains 1,200 to 1,500 wells and stretches roughly east to west from Alameda Street in Chinatown to Vermont Avenue in Hollywood.
Sitting atop the field are thousands of residences, three hospitals and several schools--including the existing Belmont High, which the new complex is supposed to replace.
But although more than $2 million has been spent investigating hazards at the Belmont site--and tens of millions more would be spent to ensure its safety if the school were opened--virtually no investigations have been done to gauge the hazards at the other schools atop the oil field, or at the homes where the students who go to those schools live.
Instead, the school board members who are expected to decide on Belmont's fate next month have pondered the proposed school in isolation.
Belmont supporters believe it is possible that if board members decide to pull the plug on the school, they could end up shutting the doors on a school that would have become a perilous neighborhood's safest haven.
"That's one of the perspectives that's gotten lost here," said a senior district official who spoke on condition of anonymity. "It's one of the troubling things about it: How this story got shaped like this."
Conversely, some environmental activists and health activists would suggest that the discoveries at Belmont point in the opposite direction. If the Belmont site is hazardous, they say, perhaps many other buildings and construction sites in the neighborhood need more scrutiny.
What is missing in the debate is any agreement on what standard should apply for schools above the oil field. Indeed, since the hazards at the Belmont Learning Complex became public, the story of the school has been shaped less by analysis than by outrage.
When the project began, school officials never carefully assessed the site's environmental problems or engaged the public in any discussion of how its risks compared with those elsewhere in the area. In fact, officials consciously neglected potentially life-threatening hazards.
When the public discovered that the project had become not only the nation's most costly high school, but also a potentially dangerous one, Belmont became for many voters the symbol of everything wrong with the Los Angeles Unified School District's giant central administration.
From that point on, one district official recently recalled, those at district headquarters felt the project was doomed.
Belmont became the dominant issue in school board elections this spring in which voters dumped two of the project's stalwart supporters.
By the time district auditor Don Mullinax released a report on Sept. 14 that held nine senior district employees responsible for the fiasco, Belmont had few defenders.
But if the board does vote in the next few weeks to end the Belmont project, as is widely expected, Sierra's question will still remain unanswered.
Charles Calderon, a former state senator and one of the members of a commission created earlier this year to advise the school district on Belmont, believes all the other risks in the neighborhood create a good argument for finishing the high school.
"If you evaluate what the reality is living and working and going to school in Los Angeles, that site is probably one of the safest sites in the entire district once the mitigation is installed," he said.
"Kids coming to that high school from some of the middle schools, kids coming to that school from the existing Belmont will be safer."
But David Beckman, another commission member and senior counsel for the Natural Resources Defense Council, says adopting that position would only preserve an environmental injustice.
"If you allow a status quo in a community or neighborhood to become a benchmark, then you end up feeding into unequal environmental conditions," he said. "You end up requiring facilities in areas that are less industrialized to be better than those in more industrialized or poor areas."