Concern for Methane Hangs Over Fairfax Area

Times Staff Writer

The explosion that ripped into a large Fairfax area discount store and nearly paralyzed the surrounding area last March became the focus Thursday for yet another chapter in the controversial saga of the proposed Metro Rail subway.

When methane gas erupted in the middle of the bustling business and residential area at 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue on March 24, injuring at least 21 people, it struck with the suddenness of an earthquake. Flames licked through the sidewalk cracks, and walls were shorn apart.

At the Ross Dress for Less store, the core of the blast in the 3rd and Fairfax area, it looked as if it were “raining fire,” one of the witnesses recalled later. But today, Ross Dress for Less has reopened, doing “business as usual,” said assistant manager Faith Andes.


Perhaps the most lasting effect of the blast was the heightened awareness of the potential danger of methane gas pockets in the area, pockets that rose to cause the March explosion.

The proposed Metro Rail subway as now drawn would pass through the gas-laden area, with a subway stop to be located at Fairfax and Beverly, just a few blocks north of 3rd Street, where the explosion occurred. Because of concerns raised by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) that tunneling through the area would risk another blast, a key congressional committee Thursday recommended a $130-million appropriation for the first leg of the subway only after insisting that the rest of the subway route avoid “potentially dangerous” areas designated in a recent city report--in effect calling for a rerouting of the line as it passes through the Fairfax area.

The city report was completed in June by a task force of experts brought together to determine the cause of the March 24 explosion.

The task force found that decomposing organic matter was the likely source of the troublesome methane gas pockets. Although the gas from decomposing plant materials had been forming for thousands of years, streets, buildings and parking lots built in recent years have kept the gas contained, the report said. But unusually high rainfall in the last decade and other factors combined to raise the underground water level, forcing a methane pocket that had formed to rise to the surface, where it passed through small openings between the floor slab and foundation walls of the Ross store, resulting in the explosion.

The report suggested that the 400-block area of Melrose Avenue to the north, Olympic Boulevard to the south, Rossmore Avenue to the east and as far west as roughly Robertson Boulevard be designated a “potential risk zone,” with a smaller 100-block area centered at the 3rd Street and Fairfax Avenue blast location designated as a “high potential risk zone.

Under the task force’s recommendations, business and homeowners within the area would be required to install gas detectors to “sample the air for excessive gas. If there was too much gas, an alarm would sound,” said city Fire Battalion Chief Jim Young, an engineering and research specialist.


The task force report is now before the Los Angeles City Council’s Building and Safety Committee. The committee last month asked the city attorney to handle the legal language of a proposed ordinance to require gas detectors and has also asked for a study to determine the cost effects on the city, homeowners and business owners.

Young said such paleontological sites as the La Brea Tar Pits also are located along the subway route, adding that “the entire Wilshire Corridor is probably a high-gas area.” However, “as long as the RTD (Southern California Rapid Transit District) follows the proper procedures and precautions in construction, there should not be any problem,” he said.

Ronald J. Lofy, a private engineer hired as a consultant to the city Fire Department after the March 24 blast, expressed doubts during a June hearing about the safety of tunneling through the area.

On Thursday he said that if the RTD, as contractors of the subway, “ran across the same situation that we had March 24, that huge pocket of gas, and had not prepared for it, there would be very high probability of accident or loss of life.” The primary risk would occur during construction, he added, not once the subway was built. And, he added, “while there are no guarantees, engineers can design to protect for problems.”

But some community groups, still worried about the potential dangers, are not confident about protective steps planned to mitigate the problem, nor are they satisfied with the compromise worked out by the congressional committee Thursday.

“I think this new development is a good step, but it does not entirely satisfy the concerns of the residents of the community,” said Richard Silverstein of the New Jewish Agenda, one of the Beverly-Fairfax groups that is opposed to the current subway route. He said he would prefer delaying the entire project until a comprehensive study is completed and the safety questions answered.