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Council Panel OKs Measures on Gas Buildup : Methane: Task force recommendations are aimed at preventing another explosion in the Fairfax District.

March 22, 1990|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A key committee of the Los Angeles City Council has approved emergency measures to try to prevent another dangerous buildup of underground gas at a methane-plagued intersection in the Fairfax District.

"We know where the gas will migrate, and we know how strong the pressure is. The only thing we don't know is when it will blow again," said Joseph W. Cobarrubias, a city geologist who briefed the committee Tuesday on his investigation of the latest gas scare at the corner of 3rd Street and Ogden Drive.

The intersection has been the site of two major gas leaks in recent years, including the 1985 explosion and fire that injured 24 people in the Ross Dress for Less store.

The latest incident occurred in February, 1989, when methane appeared in nearly explosive concentrations in the basement of a K mart store on the south side of 3rd Street. The same day, a fountain of gas, water and mud also popped up through a crack in a parking lot near the Gilmore Bank on the north side of the street.

After hearing the report of a task force headed by Cobarrubias, the Budget and Finance Committee agreed to adopt his recommendations and instructed him to prepare to implement them. Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, the committee chairman, said it was a "foregone conclusion" that the City Council would approve the task force's recommendations.

"Are we talking here about a dangerous situation, potentially?" Yaroslavsky asked during the geologist's presentation.

"Yes," Cobarrubias said.

"Very dangerous?"

"Yes. . . . As soon as it hits a crack in a foundation, it can spread and fill an entire room."

"That's pretty scary. . . . Are you telling me then that somebody's pilot light or lit cigar could cause it to explode?"

"Yes, or a light switch."

Cobarrubias said nearby residential areas are not at risk, because lawns and gardens allow methane seeping from the ground to dissipate harmlessly.

But he said that the acres of asphalt and concrete in the commercial district along 3rd Street act as a cap that prevents the methane from dissipating.

"Nature's been doing this for a million years, and it's been safe until man plunked down this pavement," Cobarrubias said.

The intersection of 3rd and Ogden sits atop a pocket of compressed sand about 42 feet below the surface, where the gas gathers at unusually high pressures--from 20 to 27 pounds per square inch, compared with 4 psi for the rest of the Fairfax area, according to Cobarrubias.

The source of the gas is the subject of a pending lawsuit filed by victims of the 1985 Ross fire. Their attorneys blame the operators of a nearby oil field, but Cobarrubias said his task force found no evidence to justify that claim.

Regardless of the source, the task force was more concerned with preventing another explosion, recommending a variety of measures. The committee adopted them in principle and indicated that the necessary money would be made available.

Among the recommendations were:

* Installation of venting wells on a 500-foot-long swatch of private property extending north and south from 3rd Street. The task force urged that the city do the job, but the council committee decided to require the landowners to do it. Yaroslavsky said this would relieve the city of liability if anything went wrong and noted that property owners had contributed to the problem by paving the area.

* Installation by the city of a system of trenches and vents beneath the intersection.

* The assignment of additional inspectors to enforce existing requirements for gas detectors and other safety devices in commercial buildings.

The wells on the private property could cost about $60,000, which would be split among the owners of the Farmers Market, the Town and Country Shopping Center and the Park Labrea Shopping Center.

Hank Hilty, president of the A. F. Gilmore Co., which owns the Gilmore Bank and the adjacent Farmers Market, said he found the decision "about right," considering that the city intends to do similar work on the intersection.

"One of the fears is, if you protect your own property, would the gas still be a problem with the street, so I think this answers that," Hilty said.

The city's costs would amount to about $70,000, but officials said that state funds were expected to cover most of that.

The committee touched briefly on proposals for major commercial developments at the Farmers Market and at the Park Labrea complex. Any new project would be required to install sophisticated anti-methane systems, but neither requirement is expected to get through the city planning process for at least a year.

"Time is of the essence here," Yaroslavsky said, urging that the methane-safety measures be implemented quickly. "Maybe we have four years. Maybe we have four minutes."

TASK FORCE RECOMMENDATIONS

* Installation of venting wells on a 500-foot-long swatch of private property extending north and south from 3rd Street. The task force urged that the city do the job, but the council committee decided to require the landowners to do it.

* Installation of a system of trenches and vents beneath the intersection of 3rd Street and Ogden Drive.

* The assignment of additional inspectors to enforce existing requirements for gas detectors and other safety devices in commercial buildings.

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