The geologist's latest methane report, released in January of this year, called for establishment of a surveillance system to identify danger spots, "but it just hasn't gotten off the ground," he said.
The system was supposed to be funded through legislation drawn up by state Sen. David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), but California Department of Conservation officials said earlier this month that the city had missed its chance to collect its $129,000 allocation.
The money went to Huntington Beach and Newport Beach instead.
Jeff Druyun, an analyst for the Los Angeles City Council, said that the city first wanted to use the money to buy a $500,000 mobile laboratory that would roam the streets of the Fairfax District to "sniff" for possible methane leaks.
After that was rejected by state officials, the city decided that the problem was "far more complicated than otherwise appeared," that there was no way to know if any action would prove to be helpful or dangerous, and that it might expose the city to costly lawsuits, Druyun said.
"The amount of money that the state had available was insufficient to meet the problems," he said, adding that the municipal code makes it clear that property owners are responsible for the safety of their premises.
But Roberti said Thursday that he found the city's failure to act inexplicable.
"It was written specifically for them," the senator said. "Anything you do, you run a litigation risk, but there's a greater hazard involved, and it's going to be an endless hazard unless we totally mitigate the situation."
Litigation can be costly. Although the fire in the clothing store happened almost six years ago, attorneys for the 21 injured shoppers and store employees only recently settled with the last of the defendants in the complex case.
Court records indicate that, as of October, the victims had won damages totaling at least $850,000.
In the largest known payment, the May Co. stores, which owned the property at the time, and the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co., which sold it two months before the fire, jointly paid out $500,000.
Sources familiar with the case said that McFarland Energy Inc., which operates a nearby oil field, settled for a larger sum, but the amount was sealed by court order.
Attorneys for the victims and for McFarland did not return telephone calls seeking comment on the case, but a letter from McFarland attorney Russell S. Wollman said the oil firm was settling, even though it has "consistently maintained that it is not liable for the fire/explosion."