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Playa Vista Buyers Will Test Capability of Methane Shield

Critics call high-tech safeguards unproven. Courts back experts who devised system.

January 06, 2003|Martha Groves | Times Staff Writer

Along with fancy appliances, swimming pools and sunset views, buyers at Playa Vista will be getting a few items not on the usual homeowner wish list: a huge rubber-like barrier beneath their homes, pipes that slice through outer building walls to rooftop vents, and a vast network of detectors and alarms.

Why all the high-tech hardware at the sprawling Westside development, which has just welcomed its first homeowner?

Because an undetermined amount of methane lies beneath the 2,500-plus townhomes, condos and houses under construction at the site, which is south of Marina del Rey at the foot of the Westchester bluffs.

Just how much danger the gas poses is the focus of die-hard opponents, who contend that it could accumulate to explosive levels inside buildings at the site.

Development of Playa Vista -- on one of the largest parcels remaining on the city's choice Westside -- has dragged on for a quarter-century because of challenges on issues from air quality and traffic to destruction of wetlands and endangered species.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday January 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 5 inches; 205 words Type of Material: Correction
Playa Vista -- A headline on A1 in Monday's paper said that courts had backed experts who devised a system for keeping methane from entering homes in Playa Vista. Government agencies and courts have decided in Playa Vista's favor on methane and other issues, but have not ruled on the specific safety measures being used at the Westside development.

In recent years, a few opponents have seized on the methane deposits, and the purported danger of explosion, as possibly their best hope for stopping the project. Their intense scrutiny prompted a review by city building officials and engineers that eventually led to a thorough revision of the city's code for gas-prone construction zones.

There is almost no common ground between opponents and those who favor the project.

Over the last decade, government agencies and courts have ruled repeatedly in Playa Vista's favor on methane and other issues. Engineers, builders and consultants for the project have joined the city of Los Angeles in saying the safety measures are the most elaborate the city has ever required -- more than enough to prevent an explosion.

Foes of the development, however, continue to question how tests were conducted. They also say that the systems for monitoring and mitigating methane are unproven and could fail, threatening a deadly explosion in new homes and offices.

Raymond S. Chan, chief of the engineering bureau for the city's Department of Building and Safety, said residents and neighbors should not be concerned. "I would feel very safe putting my family in any building at Playa Vista," he said.

The opponents remain adamantly unconvinced.

"Where's the proof that any of this works?" asked Patricia McPherson, a longtime critic. "There's the illusion that there's some safety there, when there really isn't."

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Quake Danger Cited

Opponents say one major danger is Southern California's unpredictable geology. A big earthquake, they contend, could damage the gas barriers and venting systems or rupture the underground layers of rock, sand and gravel through which the methane travels.

Moreover, they note, the task of keeping up the many vents, alarms and fans -- at an unknown cost -- will fall in coming decades to homeowner associations. Laypeople, Playa Vista detractors contend, are ill prepared to handle the job of maintaining such complex, technical systems.

But city officials say they are confident that the work can be done, with homeowners hiring consultants to keep the systems up to snuff.

In a sense, the new community's residents will be test subjects. Playa Vista's buildings are the first that must comply with detailed new citywide rules for "gassy" sites. In the next few weeks, officials expect to present the 50-plus pages of guidelines and a methane ordinance to the City Council, and they are bracing for a storm of protest from builders.

That methane exists at Playa Vista did not surprise engineers and geologists. Southern California has been one of the world's richest areas for oil production, which can be associated with the gas.

Consultants hired by Playa Vista suspect that the gas comes from the Pico Sands Formation, which extends from 500 to 3,000 feet below the surface. Gas gradually works its way to the surface along cracks or weaknesses in the rocks, occasionally bubbling up in creeks or pooled rainwater.

McPherson and her supporters contend, instead, that much of the methane at the construction site comes from a Southern California Gas Co. storage reservoir west of Lincoln Boulevard. That storage field is a natural formation more than a mile below ground where 7 billion cubic feet of gas can be held.

Project opponents allege that the gas mixes with toxic oil field gases and migrates eastward to Playa Vista -- presenting a much larger hazard than would pockets of naturally occurring methane.

In reaching their conclusion, they have drawn in part on the opinions of M. Rasin Tek, a chemical engineer who consulted for the gas company in the early 1990s. In a 2000 deposition, Tek described the Playa del Rey gas storage reservoir as being "a little notorious" for allowing more gas seepage than a typical storage field.

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