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Quake Fault Under Belmont School Is Studied


As if worries about underground pollution and methane fumes were not enough, now Los Angeles Unified School District officials are studying whether the half-finished Belmont Learning Complex is sitting on top of an active earthquake fault line.

A company, hired to determine whether old oil wells beneath the planned high school posed any dangers, this summer stumbled upon evidence of what may be a fault about 725 feet underground.

"Evaluation of the geology around the well suggests that a ... fault is not unreasonable," according to the study by Schlumberger Data and Consulting Services, a Colorado geological review firm. The company found that the oil wells were not a problem.

Those seismic findings are inconclusive, however, because they are based on a review of old oil well logs and incomplete records from other activities over the decades. But the Schlumberger report worried district building officials enough that they asked for a more rigorous seismic review. An active fault line beneath the school could derail the project, say school and state officials.

"There's an exceptionally small probability of that fault being active," said Jim McConnell, L.A. Unified's chief facilities executive. "But if the findings do show an active fault ... we'd have hard decisions to make at that point. I don't know what they would be."

The joint venture URS/Dames & Moore is conducting the seismic review by inducing underground vibrations and then tracking the echoes to create a geological map. The findings will be reviewed by geologists at Caltech and by the state Department of Toxic Substances and Contaminants.

L.A. Unified had spent $175 million on the school project when district officials discovered that toxic fumes under the campus might make the school unsafe. The district abandoned construction of Belmont in 2000.

Earlier this year, the Board of Education voted to revive the school project and to conduct a thorough inspection to see if its environmental problems can be mitigated. The seismic review and another on the growth of possibly toxic mold are due in the next few days, McConnell said.

If the property passes muster, finishing the school could cost the district an additional $100 million.

The department's chief of school property evaluation, Hamid Saebfar, said state law prohibits schools from being built within 50 feet of an active fault line. Geological maps showed no such fault.

The seismic study probably will be inconclusive, McConnell said, because it is difficult to tell if deep faults are active.

Angelo Bellomo, director of the district's Environmental Health & Safety Branch, said: "The existence of faults around downtown is well documented. The issue is how unique are the conditions and are they simply characteristic of the faults we already know about in the downtown area."

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