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Bank Scare Reminds of Gas Danger : Safety: Investigators tracing the source of an odor at a Wells Fargo branch find an explosive concentration of methane, a recurrent threat in the Fairfax area.

November 18, 1990|MATHIS CHAZANOV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Employees and customers alike had complained for a year about the bad smell at the Wells Fargo Bank branch on Fairfax Avenue, where experts finally found an explosive concentration of methane gas earlier this month.

"For long periods of time there was no problem, and then it got to be really bad," said Wells Fargo spokeswoman Kathy Shilkret.

The smell, apparently caused by mildew from water molecules wafted upward by the lighter-than-air methane, eventually was traced to an electrical conduit that extended from the bank's main business area through the concrete floor slab and reached four feet underground.

The discovery provided another reminder of the recurrent danger posed by methane in the Fairfax area, where deposits of oil and gas lie close to the surface. The city imposed a set of safety measures after 21 people were hurt in an explosion five years ago, but they have been widely ignored, officials said.

Residential portions of the area are not generally regarded as being in danger, because lawns and gardens allow methane to pass safely into the atmosphere. In commercial sections, however, an asphalt cap formed by the streets and parking lots of the commercial district can allow concentrations of the gas to reach potentially dangerous levels.

City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky said last week the Wells Fargo incident suggests that the problem "is more widespread than we thought." The bank office lies slightly outside the zone city officials had previously identified as having the greatest methane danger.

"The ordinance requiring detectors and venting has virtually gone ignored, and the first fault has got to be that of the property owners," Yaroslavsky said.

The ordinance requires that before a commercial property in the methane risk zone changes hands, gas detection meters must be installed on the ground floors of buildings where there is inadequate ventilation or conditions that might produce sparks.

The bank building, which according to county records has not changed ownership since the law took effect, was not outfitted with a gas detection meter. But city geologist Joseph W. Cobarrubias said last week that there was no guarantee that a meter would have caught the problem in the leased one-story building, because tests conducted a few feet away from the electrical conduit found only trace elements of methane.

Acting on a hunch, investigators took off the conduit's plastic switch plate, where they found a 25% concentration of methane inside the electrical compartment, well above the 5% threshold for a possible explosion.

"In a confined space, and with the right mixture, it was going to blow up, but the bank is well-ventilated so there's no chance of an explosion now," said Fleet Rust, president of Geoscience Analytical Inc., a consulting firm.

On Thursday, Wells Fargo virtually abandoned the building, at least temporarily. Work crews moved safe-deposit boxes, signature cards and other essential records to temporary quarters in the former site of the Butterfield's auction house on Larchmont Boulevard.

The move was decided by bank management, but it was reinforced by an order from the Los Angeles City Fire Department to evacuate the premises.

"We've moved all our operations out, but that doesn't mean we won't return if the building is retrofitted" to meet methane safety standards, said bank spokeswoman Shilkret.

The owners of the building were not available to comment on the methane incident. Indeed, it was difficult to determine who actually owns the brown stucco structure.

Bank officials said their lease indicates that the landlords are Jacob Libaw of Beverly Hills and Arnold Skovron of Los Angeles, but Libaw said in a brief telephone conversation that he sold it to Skovron "a number of years ago."

A woman who answered the telephone at Skovron's residence said that Skovron is "one of the owners" but said he was "too old to be interviewed."

"Why don't you talk to his partner, Mr. Libaw?" she recommended.

Mel Kaufman, Skovron's attorney, said that his client "no longer has any interest in the property, so I think Mr. Libaw is sort of trying to put you off." He declined to say more.

To further confuse the issue, the property is listed in county records as belonging to Shawn D. Libaw "et al" and Evan J. Libaw.

A San Francisco post office box is listed as the owners' mailing address, but voting registration records indicate that a Shawn D. Libaw shares Jacob Libaw's Summit Drive residence in Beverly Hills. An Evan J. Libaw, whose medical practice is located on Wilshire Boulevard, did not return telephone calls.

City geologist Cobarrubias, meanwhile, said he was not surprised by the latest methane incident.

"Low-pressure methane gas occurs throughout the area," said Cobarrubias, who investigated the March, 1985, explosion and fire at the nearby Ross Dress for Less clothing outlet, and a 1989 gas leak at the Gilmore Bank across 3rd Street from the Ross store.

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