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Quake Fault Found Under Belmont Site

Belated discovery at the plagued campus leaves L.A. school officials scrambling for answers.

December 05, 2002|Duke Helfand, Joe Mathews and Erika Hayasaki | Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles school officials said Wednesday that they will consider abandoning the half-finished and trouble-ridden Belmont Learning Complex because seismologists belatedly discovered a small earthquake fault running directly beneath two buildings of the high school campus.

The Board of Education, which three years ago stopped work at the school because of pollution problems there and then moved to revive it this year, now must weigh politically painful options: rebuild the campus on a seismically safer portion of the current 35-acre site near downtown, tear down some buildings, or raze the campus altogether and try to find land to build it elsewhere.

"It's a very sad day," Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer told a news conference Wednesday at L.A. Unified headquarters, two blocks from the Belmont site. "I had a lot at stake in trying to build Belmont. But it's imperative to change your mind when you're confronted with new facts."

Romer now faces outrage from downtown area parents and community members demanding to know why the fault line wasn't discovered much earlier. And the school district, which won voters' approval of a $3.3-billion construction bond issue last month in part by repairing its past image of incompetence, may face a damaging revival of its credibility problems.

Most school board members said they were leaning toward abandoning the campus at that location, but stressed that they awaited more discussions.

The least expensive alternative would be to build a smaller campus on 12 acres of the site at an estimated cost of $45 million or $60 million. A plan that salvages four of the six current buildings would cost an estimated $70 million, officials said. That would be on top of $175 million the district has spent on the project and its legal bills, already making it the most expensive high school in California history.

Belmont supporters had hoped that mitigation of toxic gases from old oil wells under the much-studied land would start soon and that the school, which sits partly boarded up next to the Harbor Freeway, would open in three years in a neighborhood that has badly overcrowded campuses. They also wondered whether the district might overreact to the new study, noting that such fissures are common in the region.

A study in the late 1990s determined that the school could be built without significant seismic concerns, according to state officials who signed off on the site's seismic safety.

"When are you going to give us our schools that have been promised for over 10 years now?" asked Hector Villagra, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "That's what can't get lost in this. Once you abandon that site, where else in that community are you going to find [land] to build a high school?"

The new Belmont campus was supposed to serve 3,600 students, take thousands of them off buses and relieve overcrowding at the existing 5,000-student Belmont High nearby.

"I'm disappointed because I wanted to go to a new school," said Xiomara Cabrera, 14, a freshman at Belmont High. "This school is way too crowded. There's too many kids. And it's old."

Romer said that the district would keep its promise of a new Belmont in some form and that any shortfall in capacity would be offset by changing other future construction projects.

"It's not whether we are going to build a [Belmont] school, but it's where we are going to build a school," Romer said. He said he had hoped that progress on Belmont would show that the district's past mismanagement of the project's environmental problems had been overcome and that the district could be trusted with plans to build more than 100 other schools.

Details of what geologists called a minor fault in the Elysian Park seismic system emerged in a preliminary study the district released Wednesday. That report found what its author deemed a troublesome fault cutting diagonally beneath the site and under two buildings. The researchers could not determine whether the fault is active, partly because so much topsoil had been removed, making it impossible to know the fault's recent history.

But the study's author, Caltech geology professor Kerry Sieh, urged the school board to act conservatively. In the report from his company, Earth Consultants International, he wrote: "It seems prudent to us that the district assume that the principal minor fault zone on the property ... is active."

Ironically, the fault was discovered while the district was investigating ways to clean up the toxic gases before resuming construction. The district ordered the study after a review last spring of oil pressure in abandoned wells at the site found disturbances in the ground that might indicate faults.

A seismic firm mapped the site in September and found evidence of a fault 725 feet below the surface. Then the district brought in Sieh's company, which supervised the digging of 6,000 feet of shallow trenches, no more than 12 feet deep.

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