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FINDING A WAY TO SAVE BELMONT; SIMILAR GAS WOES CONQUERED BEFORE.

Byline: Greg Gittrich Staff Writer

Nearly a decade has passed since an environmental consultant warned Los Angeles school officials against building a new campus atop a downtown oil field without proper safety precautions.

Not only did the district ignore the advice, but its officials moved quickly to build the largest high school in the state on the problematic site.

Now, as hazardous gases rising from the Los Angeles City Oil Field threaten to poison the future of the Belmont Learning Center, the burden to find a technical fix has fallen largely - and with great irony - on the shoulders of the same environmental consultant who issued the warning a decade ago.

Standing at the far end of a dusty construction site outside a Newport Beach hospital last week, Fleet Rust, president of GeoScience Analytical of Simi Valley, was the only person in a crowd of workers wearing a necktie. The burly men moving around him had no idea this unimposing chemist has been asked to help save the nation's costliest high school from destruction.

``The trick is doing things right from the start,'' Rust said, referring to about a dozen hazardous gas mitigation systems GeoScience Analytical has designed throughout Los Angeles and Orange counties since the early 1980s.

``You have to do adequate tests and plan what you're doing.''

As subcontractors for LAUSD consultants Environmental Strategies Corp., Rust and other GeoScience Analytical officials would not comment in detail on their pursuit of a technical fix for Belmont or criticism that the partially constructed complex should be abandoned.

The firm, however, made its professional opinion clear to the school board in a July 19 memorandum. GeoScience Analytical officials wrote the $200 million project ``can be completed safely and without significantly exorbitant costs.''

Burning sidewalks

According to Rust and the state Division of Oil and Gas, a mitigation system designed by GeoScience Analytical for Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach addresses problems similar to those plaguing Belmont.

A variation of the hospital's mitigation system is one of several fixes being considered for Belmont, officials said.

Using powerful vacuums and blowers, the Hoag system extracts explosive methane gas and poisonous hydrogen sulfide from sediment around the western campus of the hospital. Similar to Belmont, the gases under the hospital come from a natural source and exist in a nearly endless supply.

``Up until this system was running, kids around here could pull off a nice little trick because of the methane gas,'' Rust said. ``They would ride on their skateboards down the sidewalk and light cracks in the sidewalk on fire with cigarette lighters.''

On a more serious note, hospital officials recalled two houses burning to the ground in the 1970s when methane seeping from the nearby West Newport Oil Field, about two miles away, penetrated the structures and ignited.

Residents also frequently complained about a noxious smell, similar to rotten eggs, that pervaded the neighborhood. The nauseating odor was hydrogen sulfide, a colorless gas that attacks the central nervous system and causes brain damage if inhaled over a prolonged period of time.

The problems were nothing new.

Settlers mentioned the foul odors in 18th century accounts of the area, and the hospital installed a small methane mitigation system shortly after opening in 1952.

When Hoag acquired property south of its original campus in 1984 from the state Department of Transportation, there was a concern the hazardous gases would prevent construction of a new wing, said Maureen Mazzatenta, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

Beginning in 1992, Hoag conducted a series of environmental and geological tests to understand the extent of the hazardous gases and used the data to design a technical fix.

Unlike Belmont, the hospital had the mitigation system designed and installed before construction began.

Before GeoScience Analytical's involvement with the school district, members of the LAUSD School Safety Team estimated the cost to design and install a mitigation system for Belmont would fall between $4 million and $10 million. Since reviewing preliminary environmental data from a new round of tests, school officials have backed off that projection, signaling the tab could be higher.

The fix

Hoag and Caltrans paid about $1.5 million to install the gas extraction system, which has been operating for about a year. Yearly cost and maintenance expenses are still unknown, Mazzatenta said.

The active mitigation system protects buildings scattered across across six acres of land, including the hospital, a segment of the Pacific Coast Highway, nearby homes and commercial property.

While Belmont covers a much larger area - 35 acres - the volume of methane and hydrogen sulfide is more significant at Hoag, said Louis J. Pandolfi, vice president of GeoScience Analytical.

The gas is extracted using three wells, one off-site pipeline, and a system of vents, which lie under the slab of the hospital's soon-to-be-opened 91,000-square-foot support services building.

Monitored by a series of digital and analog pressure gauges, the gas is vacuumed through steel pipes to an above-ground cleaning site, located about 200 yards away, and blown through a ``chiller'' to lower its temperature.

After the cooling process, a water trap removes any condensation or other liquid. From there, the gas is blown through two canisters filled with a combined 70 tons of carbon impregnated with iron.

The hydrogen sulfide naturally combines with the iron in the 35-foot canisters and changes into a solid, iron sulfide. The ``scrubbing'' process results in almost pure methane, reducing the volume of hydrogen sulfide in the mixture from 4,000 parts per million to less than 1 part per million, Rust said.

Leaving the canisters, the ``clean'' methane is burned off by a flare, but will soon be harnessed to power the hospital's air-conditioning system and boilers.

About every six months, the contents of one of the canisters is changed using a crane. The hospital buys the carbon and iron filtering substance in one-ton bags from St. Louis supplier, which ships the bulky payload to Orange County on rail cars and big rigs. The material costs about 29 cents per pound or $40,600 a year, not including shipping and installation, Rust said.

The entire above-ground cleaning system is surrounded by a locked fence and sits on a 6-inch concrete platform. Six methane and hydrogen detection alarms monitor the system's perimeter and similar sensors are placed throughout the hospital.

Geoscience Analytical is paid by the hospital to monitor the system and submits monthly reports detailing the temperature of the flare and the amount of gas extracted to both the state Division of Oil and Gas and the Air Quality Management District.

If the gas alarms at the hospital sound, the fire department, police, and GeoScience Analytical are notified immediately.

``We've had a couple leaks that sounded alarms and we took care of it immediately,'' Rust said. ``There were no problems. That's what is supposed to happen. The system works.''

A mitigation system for Belmont would likely use a more intricate system of vacuums and extraction wells because of the geological conditions beneath the campus, Pandolfi said.

Unlike Belmont, the geology at the Hoag site is largely two layers: a top barrier of silt stone and mudstone, and a lower sedimentary plane of sand. The sand creates a porous environment for the methane and hydrogen sulfide and allows the gases to be extracted easily, Rust said.

According to officials from the state Department of Toxic Substance Control, Belmont's subsurface appears to be fractured and more impervious - conditions that can complicate gas extraction.

The school district and Belmont's lead developer Kajima Urban Development had planned to install a passive methane mitigation system beneath only some of the complex.

The system, which would have relied on a spray-on barrier and a series of ventilation pipes, did not include blowers or vacuums. It has been deemed ``inadequate'' by state environmental experts, Environmental Strategies Corp., members of the LAUSD School Safety Team and GeoScience Analytical.

John Sepich, a civil engineer who designed the much-criticized passive system, adamantly maintains it would have protected the school.

Based upon preliminary findings from a new battery of environmental tests at the site, which were mandated by the state, the LAUSD School Safety Team has recommended installing an active system under the entire complex. But the team has cautioned that district employees may not be capable of operating such an intricate technical fix without error over the lifetime of the school.

In recent months, smaller mitigation systems addressing different environmental problems at Jefferson Middle School and Gratts Elementary School were operated incorrectly or had to be shut down because of problems. At Gratts, the district had janitorial staff oversee the sensitive equipment, rather than trained professionals.

Tom Watson, vice president of Environmental Strategies Corp., said his firm hired GeoScience Analytical last month to complete a feasibility study for the district as part of the approval process required by the state Department of Toxic Substances Control to open Belmont.

GeoScience Analytical's primary task will be to identify the ``universe of different mitigation alternatives and the cost for each one,'' Watson said.

``They will list an entire suite or range of mitigation alternatives from taking no further action at the site to something very comprehensive with lots of redundancies,'' he said. ``We will have a list of about 30 alternatives.''

The options will first be screened against three criteria provided by the federal Environmental Protection Agency:

The system's ability to protect human health and the environment.

Its ability to meet relevant and appropriate safety requirements.

Its cost.

The options that survive the first evaluation will be run past an additional six criteria from the EPA, including long-term effectiveness and community acceptance.

The process is expected to narrow down the options to no more than three potential mitigation systems, which will be submitted to the state for approval.

Environmental Strategies Corp. is committed to turning over a list of options within the next few weeks to the state and an independent advisory commission weighing the fate of Belmont.

CAPTION(S):

Drawing, Box

Drawing/Box: BELMONT'S LIFE SUPPORT?

Bradford Mar/Staff Artist
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Sep 12, 1999
Words:1669
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