Quake Fault Found Under Belmont Site

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles school officials said Wednesday that they will consider abandoning the half-finished and trouble-ridden Belmont Learning Complex because seismologists belatedly discovered a small earthquake fault running directly beneath two buildings of the high school campus.

The Board of Education, which three years ago stopped work at the school because of pollution problems there and then moved to revive it this year, now must weigh politically painful options: rebuild the campus on a seismically safer portion of the current 35-acre site near downtown, tear down some buildings, or raze the campus altogether and try to find land to build it elsewhere.

"It's a very sad day," Los Angeles Unified School District Supt. Roy Romer told a news conference Wednesday at L.A. Unified headquarters, two blocks from the Belmont site. "I had a lot at stake in trying to build Belmont. But it's imperative to change your mind when you're confronted with new facts."

Romer now faces outrage from downtown area parents and community members demanding to know why the fault line wasn't discovered much earlier. And the school district, which won voters' approval of a $3.3-billion construction bond issue last month in part by repairing its past image of incompetence, may face a damaging revival of its credibility problems.

Most school board members said they were leaning toward abandoning the campus at that location, but stressed that they awaited more discussions.

The least expensive alternative would be to build a smaller campus on 12 acres of the site at an estimated cost of $45 million or $60 million. A plan that salvages four of the six current buildings would cost an estimated $70 million, officials said. That would be on top of $175 million the district has spent on the project and its legal bills, already making it the most expensive high school in California history.

Belmont supporters had hoped that mitigation of toxic gases from old oil wells under the much-studied land would start soon and that the school, which sits partly boarded up next to the Harbor Freeway, would open in three years in a neighborhood that has badly overcrowded campuses. They also wondered whether the district might overreact to the new study, noting that such fissures are common in the region.

A study in the late 1990s determined that the school could be built without significant seismic concerns, according to state officials who signed off on the site's seismic safety.

"When are you going to give us our schools that have been promised for over 10 years now?" asked Hector Villagra, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "That's what can't get lost in this. Once you abandon that site, where else in that community are you going to find [land] to build a high school?"

The new Belmont campus was supposed to serve 3,600 students, take thousands of them off buses and relieve overcrowding at the existing 5,000-student Belmont High nearby.

"I'm disappointed because I wanted to go to a new school," said Xiomara Cabrera, 14, a freshman at Belmont High. "This school is way too crowded. There's too many kids. And it's old."

Romer said that the district would keep its promise of a new Belmont in some form and that any shortfall in capacity would be offset by changing other future construction projects.

"It's not whether we are going to build a [Belmont] school, but it's where we are going to build a school," Romer said. He said he had hoped that progress on Belmont would show that the district's past mismanagement of the project's environmental problems had been overcome and that the district could be trusted with plans to build more than 100 other schools.

Details of what geologists called a minor fault in the Elysian Park seismic system emerged in a preliminary study the district released Wednesday. That report found what its author deemed a troublesome fault cutting diagonally beneath the site and under two buildings. The researchers could not determine whether the fault is active, partly because so much topsoil had been removed, making it impossible to know the fault's recent history.

But the study's author, Caltech geology professor Kerry Sieh, urged the school board to act conservatively. In the report from his company, Earth Consultants International, he wrote: "It seems prudent to us that the district assume that the principal minor fault zone on the property ... is active."

Ironically, the fault was discovered while the district was investigating ways to clean up the toxic gases before resuming construction. The district ordered the study after a review last spring of oil pressure in abandoned wells at the site found disturbances in the ground that might indicate faults.

A seismic firm mapped the site in September and found evidence of a fault 725 feet below the surface. Then the district brought in Sieh's company, which supervised the digging of 6,000 feet of shallow trenches, no more than 12 feet deep.

Several leading geologists said they were not surprised to learn of the newly discovered Belmont trace fault in a region where schools, hospitals and other facilities sit atop or near hazardous earthquake zones. And some said school officials were acting with too much panic.

"My personal feeling is this is a bit of a red herring," said Thomas Henyey, deputy director of the Southern California Earthquake Center. "There are so many places in Southern California you can have earthquake shaking and there are many schools near active faults at more risk. You just build them strong enough so they can withstand the shaking."

However, Nabih Youssef, a structural engineer hired by the district to work with Sieh, said the issue was not just the building's ability to withstand shaking. Because the newly discovered fault is directly underneath the building, a quake on that fault could cause earth movement of 12 inches and a rupture that could destroy the foundation. "There is no amount of retrofitting to cure that," he said.

Other experts said the district could have easily missed the fault line when the site was studied in the late 1990s. They said searching for fault lines is an inexact science.

"It's sort of like forecasting the weather, except all the clouds are two miles down," said Dennis Bellet, chief structural engineer at the Division of State Architects, which reviews all school design plans. "Sometimes the faults are easy to detect. Sometimes they are real hard to detect. It varies with soil conditions [and] the type of fault."

Still, state law prohibits schools from being built within 50 feet of a fault that has ruptured the surface in the past. There is no evidence that the fault under Belmont has ruptured, and that leaves officials with a lot of uncertainties about whether it is legal to build there.

Analysts said the disclosure of the fault line came as a personal and political blow to Romer, who made Belmont a priority from his first week on the job more than two years ago.

"It will lead to people questioning the LAUSD leadership," said Fernando Guerra, director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. "It certainly is a reason to try to understand LAUSD and its bureaucracy. Why didn't we know this sooner?"

Earlier this year, Romer persuaded six of seven school board members to finish the school, which had been abandoned in January 2000 because of concerns about toxic gases beneath the site. The project has had a tortured history, with lawsuits between the school district and its developer and law firm, and a continuing probe by the district attorney of possible violations of environmental laws.

The school board in March picked a coalition of Latino business and civic groups -- Alliance for a Better Community -- to clean up the environmental problems and finish the campus.

On Wednesday, Romer said his team would continue to look for any soil off-site that has not been disturbed to confirm whether the fault is active. "If anyone has any way of getting more evidence about it, please let us know," he said.

If that search does not bear fruit, Romer said, he will recommend halting construction of Belmont as it is currently configured. Within 60 days, he will make a recommendation on which option to pursue.

School board members said Wednesday that they were dismayed by the revelations about earthquake hazards.

"We can't build a school there now. It's just not safe," said board member Mike Lansing, who suggested using the site for a recreation center. "What are you going to do with that property, given all the ... problems?"

In addition to Lansing, board members David Tokofsky, Marlene Canter and Genethia Hudley Hayes said they had reservations about proceeding with the school. (Julie Korenstein, a previous foe of completing the campus, could not be reached for comment.) They expressed concerns not only about safety but also about additional costs.

"My initial feeling is I want to look elsewhere," Canter said. "I am going to keep an open mind ... but I'm not going to sacrifice our kids' safety."

Tokofsky added: "Anything that can stop the hemorrhaging of funds for this project, the better off we are going to be."

Board member Jose Huizar said he favors the option of building a smaller school on 12 acres on the northwest corner of the property that is mostly bedrock and seismically safe, according to researchers.

Built for 1,500 students, such a school would cost $45 million, for 2,000 students, $60 million. Either way, the district would be short of the 3,600-student capacity envisioned for the Belmont Learning Complex.

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