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L.A.'s Other Oil Fields With Schools Built on Them

October 31, 1999|Robert C. Bonner | Robert C. Bonner is a former U.S. attorney and federal judge in Los Angeles. He is a partner in the law firm of Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, which represents O'Melveny & Myers in a lawsuit initiated by LAUSD in connection with the Belmont Learning Complex project

After a two-month investigation, an independent commission appointed by the L.A. Board of Education recommended completion of the Belmont Learning Complex. Despite the dark cloud cast over the project by some politicians and the media, this was clearly the correct decision for children and the community. The board should have the courage to endorse its commission's decision.

No one questions the need for a new high school in the area. The old Belmont High School is the smallest high school in the city in land size, but ranks first in total student population. Designed to accommodate 3,900 students, old Belmont is currently home to more than 5,000. Students complain of crowded classrooms, not enough desks, jammed hallways and poorly maintained restrooms. Even with the old high school operating beyond capacity, more than a thousand students are bused outside the community.

Several people have characterized the Belmont Learning Complex as a hazardous-waste site. This is simply false. Part of the site is atop the Los Angeles City Oil Field. Yet, the leading authority on hazardous substances, the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, concluded that the only health and safety risks at the site come from common oil-field gases, methane and hydrogen sulfide, not hazardous waste.

Much has been made of the "explosive" nature of methane gas and the toxicity of hydrogen-sulfide gas detected at the site. Yet, for all the hysteria, the site is not unique. Methane and hydrogen-sulfide gases can be found throughout much of the Los Angeles Basin because the area is covered with oil fields. Old fields underlie large portions of Long Beach, Signal Hill, Torrance, Redondo Beach, El Segundo, Culver City, Century City, Beverly Hills and downtown Los Angeles.

As a result, thousands of residential and commercial buildings are built on top of oil fields. For example, the Los Angeles Convention Center and the new Staples Center are located on the Los Angeles Downtown Oil Field. Housing developments like the ones on the Brea-Olinda and Signal Hill oil fields are relatively commonplace in the basin.

Given the prevalence of oil-field gases in the basin, well-tested and widely accepted technologies exist to protect against the potential dangers posed by their presence. For example, protection systems have been installed at hundreds of locations in Los Angeles, including at the new downtown Central Library and the Page Museum on Wilshire Boulevard.

Still, is it safe to build a school on an oil field? More than 200 schools in the L.A. area are built on such sites. Beverly Hills High School is not only on an oil field but there are still several commercial wells on campus. Besides the Belmont Learning Complex, 10 other schools, including old Belmont High, are located on the Los Angeles City Oil Field. When the old Belmont High School site was first purchased, it had five oil wells and an oil-pumping plant. Even without a system to protect against oil-field gases, old Belmont has served the community safely and without incident for much of this century. With implementation of the extraordinary mitigation systems now being proposed, the new Belmont High would clearly be among the safest schools in the L.A. area.

State agencies and independent experts who testified before the school board's independent commission agreed that the site can be made safe for a school. In a letter to the commission, the Department of Toxic Substances Control concluded that the "levels and type of contamination found at the [Belmont] site" are "low and would not pose a health risk to persons occupying the site with "proper mitigation." Similarly, a report by an environmental consultant hired by L.A. Unified concluded that the new Belmont Learning Complex "can be completed safely and without exorbitant costs."

Opponents of Belmont claim the costs to mitigate the environmental problems at the site could exceed $60 million. These numbers are grossly exaggerated. Even if a more elaborate protection system than used at any other field in California were deployed at Belmont, the cost would be closer to $20 million. It's noteworthy that the methane specialist retained by the independent commission suggested that his firm could bid the project for a guaranteed maximum price well under $20 million. While this is not an insignificant figure, it is far short of the numbers suggested by Belmont opponents.

All the environmental testing conducted over the past decade has not identified elevated levels of methane gas or hydrogen sulfide under the partly constructed Belmont school buildings. Yet, Belmont opponents demand that an extravagant mitigation system be installed throughout the entire site based on a concern that oil-field gases may migrate to beneath these buildings. Because a large part of the Belmont Attendance District sits directly over an oil field, these same concerns--the threat of methane and hydrogen sulfide gas--exist throughout the entire district.

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