Carlos A. Moreno/California WatchOpen since 1960, Pescadero High's buildings were designed without adequate assessment of earthquake dangers.
For more than 40 years, the state regulator of public school construction approved projects without thoroughly assessing liquefaction, landslides and other earthquake hazards because it doubted the scientific justification and didn't want to pay for the extra work, according to agency and school project records.
Since 1933, the Division of the State Architect has been charged with enforcing the state's landmark seismic safety law for schools, called the Field Act.
But the state architect's office is also required to enforce a set of laws passed in 1967, 1973 and 1990 that require schools to rigorously investigate soil-related hazards before starting construction.
A California Watch review of internal correspondence, meeting minutes, policy documents and school project records found spotty and occasionally non-existent regulatory enforcement of the laws from 1967 to 2003 to protect against faults, liquefaction, unstable soil and landslides.
Instead of a detailed study of the school site by a licensed geologist, the state architect's office only asked for an architect's opinion before approving building plans. Until 1990, the state architect's office almost never enlisted the help of the state geologist's office – now known as the California Geological Survey – to examine the few school field reports it did receive.
Since the early 1970s, state law has required the state architect and state geologist to work together to vet building plans and ground conditions prior to approving hospital construction. But there has never been a requirement for schools to receive the same reviews.
About 1,650 schools have been built on ground that geologists predict could liquefy during an earthquake; 98 schools rest within the state’s earthquake fault zones. An additional 58 schools are in areas vulnerable to landslides, according to a California Watch analysis of state and federal data.
The data was obtained as part of a California Watch investigation, "On Shaky Ground." The series revealed that the Division of the State Architect had routinely failed to enforce the Field Act.
The stories also showed how the California Geological Survey redrew the state’s official earthquake hazard maps decades ago amid pressure from property owners, real estate agents and local government officials who feared property values would decline inside these seismic hot spots.
California Watch discovered the state architect's failure to require schools to investigate seismic hazards during its reporting of the series, but it was an element that didn't make it into the final version of the project.
Built in 1960, Pescadero High School in San Mateo County is located on land experts say is susceptible to liquefaction and high-ground shaking because of its nearness to an earthquake fault. The school has had several renovation projects since opening but has yet to do a geohazard study.
Nearby, Pescadero Elementary School had a study done in 1973, which formed the basis of how the structure was designed. But the report – which was accepted by the state architect's office without a review by the state geologist's office – was full of scientific flaws and errors based on outdated assumptions about earthquakes, said Robert Sydnor, a former senior engineering geologist for the California Geological Survey. Sydnor analyzed the report at the request of California Watch.
Former employees of the state architect’s office said regulators avoided sending school reports to the California Geological Survey because they would have been required to use agency funds to pay for them.
Documents also show that the state's structural engineers in the 1960s and 1970s weren't quite convinced about the threat posed by earthquake-related soil hazards.
As the debate between geologists and structural engineers ensued, the state architect's office decided it would not rigorously enforce the law requiring a fault investigation. An opinion from the school district's architect – not a licensed geologist – was the standard settled upon by the state.
“If the law were strictly enforced as it now reads, there would be a question as to whether money is being wasted,” according to an October 1975 memo from Fred W. Cheeseborough, then the state’s chief structural engineer. “We have therefore adopted ‘guidelines’ to liberalize its enforcement.”
Patrick Campbell, former chief structural engineer for the state architect’s office, said the agency’s parent organization, the Department of General Services, was to blame for the lack of school reviews.
“It wasn’t an issue that we didn’t want to do it,” Campbell said. “We weren’t allowed. DGS controlled our budget with a tight fist. All our decisions had to go through them.”
Only after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the Bay Area did the state architect’s office begin sending projects to the state geologist for review. And then, it was only a trickle.
The agency sent 41 projects – out of thousands – for review between 1990 and 2000, records show. It averaged out to about four a year.
In the next decade, the state architect’s office forwarded hundreds of projects for review – after discovering a number of schools being built in liquefaction and landslide areas. But the state architect’s office stopped the process in 2009, again citing budget concerns.
Now, school districts must pay private contractors for their own detailed earthquake fault studies and reviews from the California Geological Survey.
A review by the state geologist can be critical. Sydnor, who developed much of the criteria for the state, began to see what his colleagues suspected for years: Many school reports written by private contractors were filled with incomplete and incompetent assessments.
“I vetoed a lot of reports, but then I usually helped educate the consulting geologist on what work was needed to be done,” Sydnor said.
In a 2000 review of Great Oak High School in Temecula, the state geologist’s office found potential liquefaction and two earthquake faults that cut across the property, including one near the proposed gymnasium and technology buildings.
“This site has potential for significant ground motion due to the active Elsinore fault that cuts through the school property,” the report said. The consulting engineer failed to adequately check for potential liquefaction at the school site, the report concluded.
There was no further report resolving those issues. The school opened in December 2004 and now serves nearly 3,300 students.