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Postal Opening Canceled : Mail: Northridge quake postpones use of new processing center in Valencia. Damage raises questions about whether site was adequately prepared.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Erected on a hilltop in Valencia, it stood to be a paragon of the newly efficient U.S. Postal Service--a $123-million mail processing complex, built under budget, in time and with all the latest machinery to sort letters at lightning speed.

But three months shy of the planned opening, the Northridge earthquake twisted and severely damaged sections of the 750,000-square-foot structure in Valencia, and left ridges running along the asphalt parking lot like tiny speed bumps.

Damage to the facility, which was built on a backfill, raises questions about whether the land was adequately prepared and inspected. No one knows for sure when the facility will open, leaving uncertainties for about 2,000 workers who were to relocate there from an old, cramped mail operation in Van Nuys that has been straining to process an ever-increasing avalanche of mail deposited in northern Los Angeles County.

At the very least, postal officials said, the earthquake damage is likely to cost several million dollars. And even if repairs can be made quickly, they said, the facility still probably will not be opened until early next year because it will take that long for Caltrans to repair all the quake damage on the Golden State and Simi Valley freeways. Both freeways are key arteries linking the San Fernando Valley to the Santa Clarita Valley.

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Meanwhile, the federal government, Newhall Land & Farming Co.--which sold it the 65-acre site--and contractors are waiting for two geological analyses that are expected to shed light on what happened and what fixes can be made. Those reports are due out soon.

“There’s finger-pointing going on all over the place,” said Ken Emerald, president of the American Postal Workers Union local that represents 1,500 workers at the Van Nuys facility. He added: “Evidently, there is talk of litigation about who is responsible.”

Diane Regan, the Postal Service’s manager for mail processing in California, said no one was being blamed for anything yet. But Regan also did not rule out the possibility of legal action.

“At this point, we could run a lot of ‘what ifs,’ ” Regan said, adding that she was eager to see the reports. “All I know is I walked through the building with a hard hat, and I could clearly see that nothing in the building collapsed.”

Citing safety concerns, the postal agency would not allow reporters inside the facility. But from the outside, cracks were visible on facades. There was yellow tape around entrances, and in the truck dock area, thick sections of concrete were torn, exposing metal reinforcements in the walls. Last week, workers were boarding up those gaping sections and securing water pipe joints underground.

But the hardest hit areas were the facility’s two-story administration building and an adjoining employee cafeteria and locker room, which sank six to eight inches into the soil and also twisted four inches. Engineers said those structures were apparently built on relatively deep backfill--which is land that was excavated and refilled--that may have settled during the earthquake.

Jim Roberts, an engineer with Pasadena-based Jacobs Engineering Group, said the Valencia postal structure withstood the earthquake just as it was built to. But he said, “If you have some deeper failures in the soil, you’re undermining the building.”

Roberts, whose firm designed the Valencia postal complex and administered its construction, was at a loss as to why the parts of the building sank and twisted. “If you have some deep canyons full of sand,” he said, “even if properly compacted, there’s a reasonable possibility you’re going to get some additional movement” in an earthquake as violent as the Northridge quake.

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The postal facility was built on a cliff-like area about a mile west of the Golden State Freeway, just north of California 126 and close to Six Flags Magic Mountain park in Valencia. Newhall Land, which sold the land to the Postal Service for $26.8 million, prepared the site by excavating 6 million yards of earth and refilling the valleys around it.

Ron Horn, executive vice president of Sikand Engineering Associates, a Van Nuys firm hired by Newhall to prepare the site, said all of the soil and geology work complied with Los Angeles County standards. Sikand completed the grading in late 1991. “We did everything from the county perspective,” Horn said.

But the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works said that county inspectors, while they approved grading plans before the work was done, never gave final certification to the postal project because of insufficient reports. Horn said that certification was subsequently not pursued because the federal government, which is exempt from county requirements, was eager to begin construction.

David Sponn, the Postal Service’s construction project manager for mail processing facilities, said he did not know whether the federal government signed off on the land before building the Valencia complex. Sponn, who works out of Memphis, Tenn., visited the Valencia facility two weeks after the earthquake. “I was surprised at some of the damage, but it didn’t appear to be life-threatening,” he said. “I was glad nobody got hurt.”

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At 4:31 a.m. when the earthquake hit, there was a crew of 30 people working in the Valencia facility on bulk mail operations, which had been transferred ahead of time to ease the workload in Van Nuys. Those employees were in a 350,000-square-foot workroom, which was not affected much by the quake, although a two-mile-long overhead conveyor system appears to have had some damage.

The conveyors were part of a sophisticated assembly of machinery that made the Valencia facility the most technologically advanced among about 300 mail processing centers in the nation. Among the equipment at the Valencia plant were 10 high-speed canceling machines, which could cancel 35,000 stamps an hour, while at the same time sorting letters by scanning bar codes. The 20-year-old facility in Van Nuys had only two cancellation machines that operated at half that speed and without sorting capabilities.

“We were bursting out of the seams,” said David Moffitt, an official of National Postal Mailhandlers Local 303, another union at Van Nuys.

When Moffitt started work at Van Nuys in 1981, the operation wasn’t nearly as cramped. But mail volume grew 10% annually over the last decade before tapering off after the recession hit in 1991. Currently about 5 million to 7 million pieces of mail are dropped off every day in the San Fernando Valley and surrounding areas. Postal workers in Van Nuys must process and sort these letters, mostly in one night, so they can be trucked to airports and other postal offices for delivery.

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In the late 1980s, the Postal Service chose Valencia for a new mail processing center, bypassing sites in Burbank, Granada Hills and Pacoima. The decision was made on considerations of cost, land availability and forecasts for population growth in the Santa Clarita Valley, said Al Iniguez, the Van Nuys plant manager. Now, he said, some of the new canceling machines in Valencia will be brought to Van Nuys.

“We’re a little tight, but we’ll survive,” said Iniguez, who like many other postal managers assumed his position in the fall of 1992, when new Postmaster General Marvin Runyon began a big efficiency push at the beleaguered agency.

The Valencia facility was to be a model of the new, slimmed-down Postal Service, but last week, Runyon, a 37-year veteran of Ford Motor Co., flew to San Francisco to hear reports about the badly damaged Valencia plant. Runyon declined to be interviewed.

Emerald, the union official, said he and others thought the Valencia facility was ill-conceived to begin with because it was 20 miles north of the main service area of the San Fernando Valley. Despite the distance, Postal Service officials figured they could make up the lost time with increased automation, and many trial runs had been successful. But that was before the earthquake.

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Many postal workers at the Van Nuys plant seemed to take the news of the delayed move in stride. Many did not want to make the move in the first place because they had built their lives in the Valley and were not looking forward to the longer drive to work.

But other employees were clearly disappointed.


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