The Bad Old Days

Photo by Keith MayAlthough it was built atop an abandoned oil field and next to a gas-processing plant, the 10-year-old Brea Olinda High School campus was never tested for soil toxicity—an oversight that certainly would have stalled the school's construction today.

Documents obtained by the Weekly show that Brea Olinda Unified officials failed to test soil at the school site for hazardous chemicals but did hire Simi Valley-based GeoScience Analytical Inc. to look for hazardous gases. The Weekly obtained a copy of the GeoScience study, which shows that while methane and other hazardous gases were found throughout the site, they were within safe concentrations.

"It was a clean site," recalled Louis Pandolfi, a GeoScience Analytical official. "That site is about as clean as anything you'll find in Southern California."

But Pandolfi acknowledged that his firm was not asked to test for anything other than hazardous gas in the soil at the proposed high school, and therefore it did not test for hazardous chemicals related to oil-field work, such as hydrogen sulfide.

When asked if the school district had ever studied the possibility that hazardous chemicals may have been present in the soil for the proposed high school, assistant superintendent Gary Goff said, "Not that I know of, because it was not considered a hazardous site."

Goff said that he could not recall any hazardous waste on the site—just a few rusting oil rigs left behind by Union Oil Company, the site's previous owner.

Significantly, Goff recalled the comment of an anonymous construction worker involved in the project. "An unnamed grading operator once told me, 'I never see bones.'" Asked to explain, Goff said, "I heard commentaries in the early days of grading that many equipment operators don't see that kind of stuff because it has an economic impact on their lives. If they overturned any Indian burial grounds or gushing oil wells, we never heard about it."

"For a school, it was a big earthwork operation," said geologist Albert Baca, whose firm, Baca Associates, helped supervise the extensive grading during the construction of the school. To level the site, he said, two large canyons were filled with earth while a ridge along the side of the property was flattened. "I don't want to say that not one cubic yard of dirt was hauled out, but I don't remember anything hazardous that we had to haul out or dispose of."

The spotlight turned on Brea Olinda High School when a similar project collapsed under the weight of numerous environmental concerns. In downtown Los Angeles, the discovery of hydrogen sulfide and methane gas in the soil imperiled the completion of LA Unified School District's $250 million Belmont Learning Complex. A 1998 report on school construction by Assemblyman Scott Wildman (D-Glendale) revealed that LA Unified officials viewed Brea Olinda as the model for Belmont.

Similarities between Belmont and Brea Olinda High School don't end there. As the Weekly reported two weeks ago, both projects were carried out on hillside oil fields, involved risky real-estate deals, and produced huge cost overruns.

Most significantly, both projects paid out handsome consulting fees to Wayne Wedin, a former Brea city councilman, city redevelopment chief and school consultant.

Long after Wedin's Belmont contract was yanked in 1997 for questionable ties to an architect on the project, LA Unified officials announced that workers had discovered dangerous levels of hazardous gases and chemicals at the former oil field. It's now doubtful that Belmont will ever open. As a result, numerous current and former LA Unified officials are being investigated to see if they covered up the site's toxic condition until long after the project's Environmental Impact Report had been completed.

Brea Olinda officials insist Brea Olinda High School is safe. But that's exactly what LA Unified officials said about Belmont until the state Allocation Board forced them to conduct more rigorous soil tests.

Last month, reacting to news from the Belmont site, Governor Gray Davis ordered the California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) to review all environmental studies being carried out by school districts for current and future school projects in the state. But back in the early 1980s, when plans for Brea Olinda were already on paper, the DTSC was just coming into existence.

"In 1983 or 1984, this department had 105 staff members," said Ron Baker, public information officer for the DTSC. "We've got over 1,500 staff members now. We only started looking at schools this past year, and a lot of schools were built before environmental regulatory agencies like ours came online."

Baker said that since the DTSC began its school investigations last year, it has already expanded its assessment of LA Unified sites to include a total of more than 20. Brea Olinda is not one of them.

"If we receive some indication from a school board that they feel they need us to come look at their school, or if we feel that the condition at the school poses some health hazard, we'll come and look," Baker said.

If the DTSC does test the soil at Brea Olinda High School, this much is certain: it will be the first time anyone has done so since GeoScience Analytical conducted its 1986 study on underground methane gas. While that study gave the Brea Olinda project a clean bill of health, it noted that underground soil sampling in an area of the site "where most of the buildings are to be placed" revealed concentrations of gas that were "conspicuously high."

Although methane levels were deemed safe at the time, the GeoScience Analytical report noted "it is conceivable that sealing this area"—for example, by building a school there—"could cause an accumulation of gas over a long period of time."

While he insisted he's not concerned about Brea Olinda, GeoScience Analytical's Pandolfi said it's best to be safe. "With all the stuff happening at Belmont, everybody's taking a closer look," he said. "It wouldn't hurt to have a monitoring program at Brea Olinda. It would offer a little protection and peace of mind."

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