A powerful leak of underground methane gas Tuesday in the Fairfax District prompted officials to close more than 50 businesses in a shopping strip damaged in a 1985 gas explosion and take emergency action to pump water from beneath the highly pressurized area.
Los Angeles Fire Department officials and state conservation authorities said they expected private work crews to begin pumping operations at dawn today to force water out of volatile pockets of methane gas. Rainfall in recent weeks collected underground, driving the gas to the surface, officials said.
Until the pressure eases, Fire Department officials ordered the closing of banks, stores and restaurants in the Park La Brea and Town and Country shopping malls on 3rd Street, the site of a 1985 methane explosion that injured 21 people, shattering two stores.
Assistant Fire Chief Don Anthony said the businesses will be closed "for a couple of days, at least 48 hours," while pumping operations continue. Farmers Market, north of the leak site, was not affected by the methane seepage and will remain open. No residents were evacuated.
On the north side of 3rd Street, fire officials closed the Gilmore Bank, near where a methane leak spurted through a fissure in the sidewalk early Tuesday morning, spewing methane fumes and shooting a clay-colored liquid a foot into the air.
"The percolation is quite forceful," said Fire Department spokesman Vince Marzo.
He said that had anyone struck a match or lit a cigarette Tuesday morning, "we'd probably be looking at angels with harps."
Officials said the area was probably spared from another devastating explosion by the apparent success of a city ordinance requiring businesses in the area to install gas meters and monitor them every day.
"This is the identical situation to that of four years ago," Anthony said. "The only difference is there was no explosion."
The 1985 blast reduced a Ross Dress for Less store to rubble and damaged other buildings nearby. The gas opened spidery fissures in the earth and escaped through the cracks in bursts of flame. Damage estimates topped $400,000.
Anthony blamed Tuesday's leak on a buildup of rainwater underground in recent weeks and on a clogged gas vent in the parking lot next to the dress store rebuilt after the 1985 blast. The vent was installed in the parking lot after the explosion to allow the pressurized methane to escape harmlessly to the surface. Anthony said that soot and dirt had collected in the vent, preventing the methane gas from its normal "bleeding off."
Richard Manuel, an engineer with the state Division of Oil and Gas, said private work crews will pump nitrogen gas into the vent, "which will blow the water out." As the water pours off into sewers, it will be replaced by methane gas, which will again escape upward at safe pressures.
Officials said that once the pumping operation has succeeded, they plan to install a permanent pump that will drain off rainwater if it reaches dangerous levels.
Ronald J. Lofy, an environmental engineer who works as a geological consultant to the city, speculated that a contributing factor to the latest methane leak may have been recent seismic activity in the underground methane pockets.
"There has been earthquake movement in the area recently," Lofy said. "Some of the earth movement may have cut off the escape routes for the gas."
The methane pockets lie atop the remnants of old petroleum and natural gas fields drilled by oil companies from the 1900s until the 1960s. A task force investigating the 1985 explosion concluded that recent heavy development in the Fairfax area has acted as an artificial cap, preventing the natural release of the gas.
Fire Department officials said the methane leak was first detected at 6:12 a.m. by employees checking gas meters in the basements of the K-mart and Ross stores.
Firefighters cordoned off the area before most merchants could even set up for the morning. The Southern California Gas Co. immediately shut off service to K-mart and Gilmore Bank, a company spokeswoman said. Electric service remained on, fire officials said, to allow fans inside the affected buildings to dissipate the gas.
Meanwhile, as firefighters blocked off parts of 3rd Street, businesses along Venice and Pico boulevards, about a mile south, were also forced to close briefly. The unrelated spill of several drums of a natural gas additive in the 4800 block of Pico led to the evacuation of the Wilshire Division Police Station, a nursery school and other businesses for half an hour until the fumes dissipated.
All day long, orange-vested safety officials and experts from the state Division of Oil and Gas wandered over the Fairfax site, testing for leaks in the street and sidewalk with portable gas detectors. The Fire Department plans to set up five monitoring stations around the bank and the shopping center to continuously monitor methane levels.
Merchants and customers who normally shop and work in the cordoned-off shopping center could only stand by helplessly.
"If this lasts only a day, we'll be OK," said Bruce Teppo, the manager of Valu-Rite Drugs. "But if it lasts more than a day, business will be hurt."
"This is getting to be old hat," said Teppo's pharmacist, Leonard Kligman, a veteran of the 1985 blast.
Times staff writer Frederick M. Muir contributed to this article.