Ballona Wetlands Methane Gas Issue
Body Blow

A scientific report showing that high levels of methane and hydrogen sulfide are just below the planned Playa Vista project has pro-development politicians taking another look.

By Jill Stewart

You may have missed it in our slumbering local media, but quality of life and the environment in our sprawling and increasingly unlivable city won huge victories last week as the planned Sunshine Canyon Landfill reopening in the San Fernando Valley and the proposal to build the Playa Vista minicity on the Westside suffered major body blows.

Both projects are dogs that nobody should have to live near. Sunshine Canyon opponents Kim Thompson, Mary Edwards, and Wayde Hunter say, "Not in anybody's back yard!" But in both cases the too-powerful Los Angeles City Council has been in charge of saying yes or no, and the developers have wooed City Hall with hundreds of thousands of dollars in lobbying money. Also, in both cases, major operatives within the Democratic Party have sold their souls to see the projects get built, by making sure the Environmental Impact Reports weren't worth the recycled paper they were printed on.

In fact, Hollywood ought to write a Chinatown 2000 sequel about all the sleaze and slime that helped these outrageous projects slide effortlessly toward approval.

Starring in the Sunshine Canyon subplot of the film would be Westside Councilwoman Cindy Miscikowski, a "liberal" Democrat who strenuously and successfully fought dumps in Mission, Rustic, and Sullivan canyons near her Brentwood home, but led the push to stick it to the Valley with a 300-acre heap of garbage that will fill huge Sunshine Canyon nearly to its brim.

(In a future column, I will discuss the victory of the Sunshine Canyon protesters who, along with Assemblyman Scott Wildman, Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa, and others, persuaded the Legislature last week to conduct an extensive audit of how Sunshine Canyon's expansion got approved by the City Council and state agencies without a promised health study, earthquake fault study, or other safeguards.)

This week, because time is of the essence, I'll focus on the Playa Vista plotline. Starring, of course, is City Councilwoman Ruth Galanter, also a "liberal" Democrat, who ran for office against the Playa Vista development a decade ago on the motto "She can't be bought and she won't back down." Once elected, Galanter broke the land-speed record for being bought and backing down.

Miscikowski's and Galanter's nasty pet projects have been fought only by little guys, so City Hall assumes they are done deals. But one of the reasons I love politics is that even done deals can be upended in the democratic system, no matter how stinky and corrupt the system seems to be.

Last week, a fresh scent was wafting over the city. Finally. Not only will Sunshine Canyon be put under a microscope by the Legislature, but City Councilman Mike Feuer -- a stanch supporter of Playa Vista -- suddenly stood down. His action marks a break from the pack, and others on the 15-member City Council may follow.

Feuer has seconded virtually every bad idea of Galanter's involving Playa Vista, including the council's decisions to shower public funds and low-interest bonds on the billionaire developers who own the Ballona Valley's 1,087 acres. But things have changed with the release of a stunning new report from an expert hired by City Hall to determine whether Playa Vista has unusual methane or toxic problems, as alleged by the Spirit of the Sage Council, a Native American group, and the Sierra Club, among other organizations.

The tests were ordered by nervous bosses in the City Department of Building and Safety several months ago when the huge legal battle broke out over who is at fault for the disastrous $170 million Belmont Learning Complex constructed over an oil field seeping methane and toxins.

Watching Belmont with trepidation, the city did something it refused to do for a decade: It hired an unimpeachable expert, scientist Victor Jones of Texas, to conduct an exhaustive study of the one-third of the Ballona Valley slated for Phase One housing, office towers, and roads.

By drilling soil cores east of Lincoln Boulevard, Jones' teams discovered something the city could have known a decade ago: Extremely high levels of methane are just below the surface. Some of the methane is under such pressure that two borings resulted in uncontrolled "blowouts" of methane gas that went unreported by the pro-Playa Vista L.A. Times. The methane found is extremely concentrated even for methane-riddled Los Angeles. The tests also found high levels of the fatal toxin hydrogen sulfide.

Yet nearly two months after the Jones study became available to me and anyone else who sought it out, not a single member of the City Council (except perhaps the sneaky Galanter) had seen Jones' horrific methane report and alarming new map of "Playa Vista." That's because city staffers -- some of whom have spent their careers in City Hall working on little else but Playa Vista -- withheld the map and most other important details from City Council members.

When Feuer, during a recent hearing, pointedly asked why he had not been provided the methane seepage map or Jones' report before he was asked to approve $135 million in special bonds for Playa Vista, city staffers blithely responded that they felt it was better to "summarize" for elected officials such as Feuer.

"Summarizing" by staffers is what led to the succession of approvals of Belmont by the L.A. Unified School District. "Summarizing" was the key method city staffers used to keep the City Council misinformed about Sunshine Canyon when it approved the landfill last December.

But two weeks ago, Feuer and his council committee decided to delay its decision on approving low-cost bonds for Playa Vista, and now he is demanding answers.

The clincher is that Feuer is running for city attorney next spring. He clearly does not want a $2 billion project riddled with legal and safety liabilities snuffing out his political dreams when he launches his campaign. And, if he becomes city attorney, he clearly doesn't want to spend his career fighting lawsuits by future Playa Vista residents over methane and whatever else is lurking in the Ballona Valley.

So Feuer demanded that city employees furnish him with the infamous map and the actual Jones report on methane and hydrogen sulfide. What a concept!

In his bomb-dropping report, Jones states on page 21 that, while mitigation of the methane can be attempted, the best plan is "no development," and if development must be done, Jones says it should be "non-residential."

Feuer says: "I am not convinced that sufficient environmental study was done of this project in the early years of this debate, for whatever reason." If that doesn't exactly sound hard-hitting, consider that Feuer's comment is the strongest statement against Playa Vista by any sitting member of the City Council in recent memory.

Playa Vista has controlled the debate by pouring money into City Hall, last year spending nearly $500,000 to lobby, mislead, and misinform. In the first three months of this year, Playa Vista spent another $165,275 to lobby city employees and elected officials.

Feuer has held up approval of the $135 million in low-interest bonds to Playa Vista for several days to a month, while he tries to get some answers. He is very ill-advised to be in such a rush.

It will take as-yet-unhired consultants many months to create a mitigation plan for the newly discovered methane seeps. According to Jones, the high groundwater beneath Phase One at Playa Vista is "saturated" with methane gas and must be pumped from the earth, "stripped" of the methane, and then pumped back in to prevent the land from sinking. This will cost millions. Moreover, the developer has no workable plan to deal with the surprise find of hydrogen sulfide poison.

Yet this stunning information is only slowly seeping up through the floorboards of City Hall.

I had lunch last week with top brass from the city attorney's office. These officials have defended the city's plans for Playa Vista as legal and prudent, but as of the lunch, they did not even know that the groundwater beneath Playa Vista must now be pumped and stripped of methane and pumped back underground.

Nor did the city attorney's office honchos grasp the extent of the methane found -- even airily suggesting that "methane is everywhere in Los Angeles."

That is the erroneous spin, almost word for word, created by the Playa Vista public relations machine overseen by Rogers Associates. In mid-May, I appeared on a TV debate with David Herbst, a Playa Vista vice president and spokesman for the billionaires who own the Ballona Valley. Herbst is a nice guy, but he's peddling a poisonous project for wealthy absentee owners who would never deign to speak to Herbst if he weren't their handy pocket tool.

Herbst seems desperate, chirping of Playa Vista: "It's a go! It's a go!" On TV and the radio, he has even made the inaccurate claim that a superior court judge read the new methane study by Jones and ruled that the project is fine. The lazy Times recently repeated that spin without checking the facts.

But nothing of the sort happened. The Judge announced his tentative decision and clearly stated he was not going to consider the Jones report. When is the media going to stop repeating Playa Capital's lies?

City officials must be nauseous over what the report says. Two weeks ago, Galanter melted down in public when environmentalists quietly held up a large protest sign at a pro-Playa Vista seminar where she was speaking. Galanter left the podium, yanked the sign away from the stunned protesters, and tossed it onto the floor. (Can't sad-sack Galanter be sued for assault, and for violating First Amendment rights?)

Surely Galanter now knows that the three huge methane seeps are directly below property being graded for thousands of condos, homes, and offices in Phase One. One seepage area -- shown as big red blobs on Jones' map -- is directly beneath the area Stephen Spielberg once planned to use for his Dreamworks SKG Studio.

Moreover, the so-called Phase Two areas of Playa Vista have not been tested for methane. (In a classic example of extremely poor city planning dominated by the whims of developers, Phase Two cuts right through the heart of Phase One east of Lincoln Boulevard.)

Jones believes that the methane-butane mix -- which is deep, ancient methane rather than new, swamp-gas-style methane -- is leaking from an earthquake fault dubbed the "Lincoln Boulevard fault."

You won't find any of this information in the fluffy 1993 Environmental Impact Report , which was largely written by Playa Vista's lawyers and embraced by the City Council and deluded citizens who call themselves Friends of Ballona Wetlands.

Why not?

It will take Mike Feuer a lot longer than a month to figure out the answer to that question.

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