June 23, 2004 - From the January, 2001 issue

Belmont: It's Back & It's Unresolved

In February 2000, Jennifer Hernandez submitted one of the most insightful and talked about articles in recent MIR history: "How Clean is Clean? Will Brownfields Ever Be Reclaimed?" And in the following interview, she applies her thesis-that the cleanup process is often arbitrary and discriminatory to marginalized communities-to L.A.'s Belmont Learning Center fiasco. As an experienced environmental attorney and boardmember of the California Center for Land Recycling, Jennifer sharply criticizes the LAUSD for making decisions without understanding the science of remediation.

Jennifer Hernandez

Jennifer, the Belmont Learning Complex had new life breathed

into it on December 12 when the L.A. Unified School Board voted 4-3 to put an RFP out to the private sector soliciting bids that must cost-out remediation of the site as a school. Since many of the School Board members are not from the development or environmental communities, what should the School Board and the staff be looking for in the responsive bids to best evaluate the fate of this much debated new high school complex?

The most important thing to consider is the experience that the private sector bidders have in constructing buildings over oil fields, which are common in urban areas in California and elsewhere. In particular, they should look at the integrity of the gas barrier and methane removal systems to assure an ample margin of safety for kids.

You've publicly stated in this newsletter that the Belmont controversy has been like shouting ‘toxic fire' where the kids get trampled. Can you elaborate for us?

The Belmont Learning Center has been controversial on a number of fronts, one of which has been the issue of toxics. That concern was disclosed and dealt with throughout the environmental review and approval process. But because toxics is such a scary subject (perhaps a reflection of the failure of our educational institutions to teach science) it becomes an easy lightning rod for opponents, whose objections usually have little to do with environmental protection or toxics.

To scream ‘toxic fire' in this community, which has not only survived the fact that it has past production oil beneath it (equal to that beneath Beverly Hills), but is in fact rebounding in this economic recovery, was incredibly irresponsible. There are safe, proven and extremely reliable methods used to assure protection of structures, people and the environment for these kinds of conditions. The scare that was disclosed during the environmental review process is based on old technology and shouldn't have been an issue. Hundreds of hours of investigation-costing millions of dollars-have showed us what we knew all along: There's oil beneath Los Angeles, and you can in fact build on top of it.

How do you react to the fact that over the past two years-as the School Board has cried ‘toxic fire' and opposed completion of Belmont due to the ‘revelation' of sulfur and methane-they've initiated no testing of the other school sites in the Belmont area or the District in general?

It demonstrates how unworkable the notion of Belmont as a toxic disaster actually is. If they were serious about this, they would not only test, but evacuate L.A.-which is of course both scientifically unsupportable and absurd public policy.

In the November 29th L.A. Times, an article entitled "A Bleak View On New Schools" quotes LAUSD Board President Genethia Hayes as follows: "The District may have to bus more students out of the crowded Downtown area or come up with creative solutions, such as converting office space to classrooms, because environmental problems like those that caused the Belmont Learning Complex to be abandoned may make it impossible to build any schools in the Downtown area and will require some schools to be closed." How do you respond to the Board President's warning?

Frankly, it's shocking. It again emphasizes the Board's need to acquaint themselves more thoroughly with the facts and the science of their own town.

Moreover, the idea of putting kids in office buildings and thinking that somehow shelters them from the oil beneath Los Angeles is simply absurd.

You've said many times that other states and localities have found ways of remediating land for use as open space, residential, and even school sites. While those projects may not be on the same scale as the Belmont Learning Project, are there any case studies on which you can elaborate, either in California or around the nation, that might put LAUSD's challenge in perspective?

In some ways, the more extreme cases prove how easy the Belmont Complex actually is. In my opinion, one of the most challenging toxic land recovery cases involves constructing anything on top of a recent landfill. Landfills, like oilfields, produce methane, and they produce it for decades. However, unless we simply abandon landfill sites throughout the urban areas where they were originally constructed, we are faced with a mammoth land-use challenge-to recover these urban lands and make them usable.

And we've done just that. For example, in the San Francisco Bay Area-which is considered a kind of hotbed of environmental activism-we've struggled with a lot of third party scrutiny by the Sierra Club and plenty of other groups. Nonetheless, we've managed to do some tremendous work. The City of Berkeley has a Cesar Chavez Park, which is open space atop a landfill. We have a huge new habitat park, the East Shore State Park, in Emeryville, Berkeley, Albany and Richmond-all former landfill. We have the Shoreline Amphitheater, which is a terrific outdoor gathering spot for the community, much like the Hollywood Bowl.

If we can do these things with landfills, there's no reason we can't do it with the oilfield properties characteristic to L.A. If Beverly Hills and Montecito can do it, why should Downtown be deprived?

In a recent Which Way L.A.? broadcast, you and Angelo Bellomo, the Director of Environmental Health & Safety for LAUSD, differed on whether it was beneficial to set statewide guidelines for remediation of contaminated sites like Belmont. Give our readers some insight into the value of setting statewide guidelines for school and brownfield remediation.

I think Angelo and I both recognize the challenge facing California, which has historically resisted the question of ‘How clean is clean?' for toxic sites, unlike 34 other states that have wrestled with this question and settled on a solution. And I don't think Angelo is waiting for the State debate on this to settle down. He wants to move ahead with school projects, something I fully support.


However, on a parallel track, there is no question that we need State standards. What is remarkable-in terms of equity and access to environmental solutions-is that three Northern California communities already have numerical screening criteria: The City of Emeryville has approval to use the U.S. EPA guidelines. The City of Oakland has used hundreds of thousands of federal grant dollars to develop its own toxic screening criteria to facilitate redevelopment in Downtown Oakland, which has many of the same problems as L.A. And the San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board, which covers all nine counties in the Bay Area, has numerical environmental screening criteria as well.

The fact that the State's most populous area-Los Angeles-would be deprived those criteria is absolutely shocking.

They say that hard legal cases make bad law, and some have suggested that as a result of the Belmont fiasco, we now have bad State law on the books with respect to environmental review of brownfields. What do you see as the ramifications of the regulatory review procedures that were put in place last January in response to the furor over Belmont revelations?

First of all, the idea of a State environmental oversight agency making sure sites are safe for new schools is not a bad idea. In fact, it's a pretty good one, and is consistent with what the State does to determine whether a school is sited appropriately for population demand.

The problem with this new law is the lack of standards. As a result, no action is taken, which disproportionately affects the school districts with the highest need-the urban districts grappling with former industrial or other toxic sites. The lack of standards means that the process is inherently political.

One of the most unfortunate results of this new law is that the State has decided to determine the standards for some of the most noncontroversial pollutants, like lead, arsenic, and a certain household pesticide. By choosing those contaminants-all characteristic of residential sites-they're basically encouraging school districts like Los Angeles to go after residential properties. By setting standards only for residential contaminants, the State has actually created a new incentive for districts to condemn and displace affordable housing in order to create schools. That frankly brings the process full circle because the reason L.A. Unified started looking at former industrial sites in the first place was to avoid throwing out the very people who need those schools.

Isn't it also expensive? At the last Prop. BB Oversight Committee hearing, Angelo Bellomo said that health and safety costs make up between 5% and 8% of their entire Facilities budget-that's between $150-180 million of the $3 billion total. Isn't there a less expensive way to achieve high health and safety standards?

Again, it comes back to the issue of setting standards. The reason all that money needs to be spent is that, in general, State bureaucrats never meet a study they don't want. You can spend huge sums of money on paper studies-and enrich consultants, lawyers and other members of the private sector-without getting to the bottom line of whether a school site is safe. If we had standards, you could put that money directly into cleaning up the schools.

If we were to amend the year-old DTSC legislation now on the books, what reform proposals would be helpful?

For better or worse, the sponsor of the school legislation, Senator Martha Escutia, is also the one who's been tackling the standards issue. For the last two years, she's been working to require the State of California to join virtually every other populated state in the country in setting standards. And she will try again this year. There has unfortunately been huge resistance from environmental activists in Sacramento who apparently want to keep this whole issue floating in a political haze.

How would you describe the arguments of the opposition to the setting of these objective standards?

There are basically two groups in Sacramento that have reached a comfortable paralysis with each other. One is the environmental purist community, which is insistent on pristine standards, regardless of health. The other is the industrial community (or at least portions of it) which questions the need for cleanup at all.

Unfortunately, neither of these groups is really focused on community health in terms of whether neighborhoods have schools, parks or housing. And as long as this is simply a debate between polluters and environmental purists, the only losers will be the communities that are trying to make schools, parks and housing work for them.

Lastly, give our readers a road map, Jennifer, for how best to overcome the legislative and administrative obstacles that have resulted from the political response to the Belmont Learning Center crisis.

Actually, Senator Richard Polanco offered a good legislative model for that road map back in 1990. At that time, he was grappling with the overall issue of redevelopment agencies and blighted communities, including the recovery of industrial properties. Senator Polanco set out the core statutory requirements necessary to make this process succeed-with the exception of setting standards-by requiring an adequate investigation and providing the new site owners, who didn't contribute to the pollution, with some liability protection. And I was very heartened to hear that both Superintendent Romer and Mayor Riordan are now on-board with that issue.

But we still need to set the new standards. Senator Escutia's bill, SB 324, tried to do that last year, and she's introducing it again this year. It is a huge issue that the Los Angeles community needs to get behind, and we hope that they will.


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