Photo by Myles RobinsonWith a price tag currently running over $200 million, the Los Angeles Unified School District's Belmont Learning Complex in downtown LA ranks as the most expensive high school project in California history. Built on an abandoned oil field, the Belmont construction project ground on for years before state experts realized that pockets of methane gas in the soil beneath the future school might someday leak to the surface and cause an explosion.
LA Unified officials knew about the contamination—and the possibility of above-ground explosions—but reckoned they could take care of the problem during construction. They were wrong, and it's now doubtful that the school will ever open. Numerous school-district officials involved in the project have either resigned, had their contracts terminated, or are currently being investigated for criminal wrongdoing. Meanwhile, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control is trying to determine whether nine other properties owned by LA Unified may pose the same environmental risks as the Belmont site.
One school that isn't slated for an emergency investigation is Brea-Olinda High School, which opened its doors to much fanfare 10 years ago. But according to a December 1998 report released by Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Los Feliz), chairman of the California Joint Legislative Audit Committee (JLAC), there is every reason to add Brea-Olinda High School to that list.
Just as with Belmont, the Brea-Olinda school project was an exotic real-estate deal that promised a lot, delivered little, and cost far more than originally projected. Crucially, both projects involved an Orange County school consultant named Wayne Wedin, whose high fees and cozy relationships with developers raised serious concerns about possible conflicts of interest (see "Shadow of Suspicion," Dec. 18, 1998). But by far, the most disturbing comparison between both projects is the fact that, like Belmont, Brea-Olinda High School was also built on the least likely of locations: a hillside oil field.
For decades, the land now occupied by Brea-Olinda High School was owned and operated by Union Oil Company. A gas-processing facility next door ran until 1997, eight years after the school was completed. When construction began on the new high school, it was determined that there were two active oil wells beneath the site alongside numerous abandoned wells, all of which had possibly been used as hazardous-waste dumping pits. Such discoveries might have prevented the site from ever being chosen by the Brea-Olinda Unified School District. Indeed, Union Oil hesitated to sell the land to the district, which was legitimately worried about future lawsuits stemming from student deaths or injuries relating to gas leaks or methane explosions.
Another problem posed by the high school's proposed location was the fact that it lies less than one-quarter mile away from a major earthquake fault. Despite the inherent dangers posed by the Union Oil site and acting upon Wedin's recommendation, the school district purchased the land for $30,000 an acre. But the cost of preparing the site for construction—efforts that included intense soil testing, site excavation and grading—soon swelled from $3.5 million to $11 million.
The school district paid for an environmental assessment that declared the site safe from both earthquakes and future aboveground contamination from the oil wells. Brea environmental consultant Walton Wright, who spoke with JLAC investigators last year, strongly disagreed. "You're not supposed to build within a quarter of a mile of a fault," he told investigators. "Looking at the bedding and the hills and the steep drop-off, I thought that [wasn't] the place to build a school. But no one was listening."
In 1985, about a year before the project broke ground, the California Department of Conservation's Division of Oil and Gas ordered the school district to close two active oil wells on the site and study the threat of methane gas "migration" into any new buildings that might be constructed on the site. The school district responded by writing a draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR) that mentioned concern over "the accessibility of the [neighboring gas processing] plant to students as well as the use of the road adjacent to the school by trucks carrying petroleum products, including the highly explosive propane."
But while it proposed extensive fixes—capping of oil wells as well as future monitoring to prevent methane leaks—the draft EIR didn't impress the Department of Conservation, which made its position clear in a 1985 letter to Brea-Olinda High School project manager Leonard MacKain: "The Department of Conservation's Division of Oil and Gas has reviewed the draft EIR for the Brea-Olinda High School project and has determined that our comments . . . have been largely ignored."
But still, the project went forward. What changes Brea-Olinda officials made to the project's final EIR and what (if any) new efforts they took to ensure the site's safety remain unclear.
Ron Baker, a spokesman for the Department of Toxic Substances Control, said his agency didn't begin actively investigating school-safety issues anywhere until well after the Belmont scandal broke four years ago. But he pointed out that building schools on top of abandoned oil wells is never a good idea.
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"The thing is a lot of oil wells weren't constructed very well," he said. "It's also hard to tell where they are. Any well that isn't abandoned properly would act as a conduit, like a straw," sucking methane gas and other hazardous compounds to the surface. A worst-case scenario would be that gas could leak into a school building, slowly accumulate until ignited by a random spark, and produce an explosion that would dwarf the Columbine High School massacre.
Baker added that the Department of Toxic Substances Control is examining methods of sucking trapped methane gas from the soil beneath the half-completed Belmont Learning Complex through a soil-vacuum system. "But with any kind of system you put at the school site, you have to be concerned about how it will be operated," he said. "Any system that is put on a school site to address an environmental concern like methane gas has to have a maintenance system that will work for 400 years. Who is going to make sure that the system is operating properly?"
According to Jason Marshall, a California Department of Conservation oil and gas expert, that responsibility rests solely with the Brea-Olinda School District. Marshall said the high school project's final EIR is the only document that would indicate what safety measures the school district undertook. JLAC investigators never got ahold of that document, however, and Wildman's December 1998 report noted that Brea-Olinda officials had been less than cooperative with the efforts of his staff to obtain all the records from the project.
Gary Goff, assistant superintendent of the Brea-Olinda Unified School District, failed to respond to several telephone messages left by the Weekly seeking his comment on the school's safety. The district has yet to respond to a California Public Records Act request seeking access to the project's final EIR report. Those facts didn't sit well with Marshall, who issued the following warning to Brea-Olinda officials: "If they're not doing what they said they'd do in the EIR, then they've got a problem."