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A Methane-charged Lawsuit

A GROUP OF ACTIVISTS asked a Los Angeles judge Friday to hold the city in contempt of court for failing to ensure the safety of methane-gas-mitigation measures at the enormous Playa Vista project, a violation of a judge’s order and the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

The Department of Building and Safety issued 26 permits for the methane system and thousands of occupancy certificates on the advice of the City Attorney’s Office without answering environmental and health-and-safety questions that could lead to a legal quagmire and massive liability for the city, plaintiffs alleged.

“A judge’s order required the city to approve methane-mitigation measures according to CEQA, and the City Attorney’s Office advised the City Council to ignore that legal requirement,” said attorney Richard Fine on Friday morning outside the courtroom of Judge George Wu. “That is more than avoidance of the law. That is contempt, and it is the basis of the motion we are filing today.”

Daniel Cohen, a plaintiff in the long-standing legal dispute over environmental compliance, said, “It’s business as usual for the building department: issuing permits as they go, despite a court order to approve the system first.” Added Patricia McPherson of the Grassroots Coalition, another plaintiff in the matter, “It’s an extreme health and safety matter.” She said the city’s own experts, Texas-based Exploration Technologies Inc., have labeled the site the “largest oil field and methane gas seat in the country,” which lies beneath a project that includes more than 3,000 residential units, 4,000 residents and an 80-person assisted-living facility for senior citizens.

Playa Capital LLC general counsel Patricia Sinclair had no comment after storming out of the hearing. Later, spokesman Steve Sugarman released a statement: “Playa Vista is a thriving community with a methane system that was used as the basis for the citywide methane ordinance. We invite the people of Los Angeles to come and take a look and experience it for themselves.”

During the hearing, Assistant City Attorney Susan Pfann complained, “It’s unfair that we had no notice of this motion. I’m concerned my clients could be thrown in jail.” Assured by Fine that the plaintiffs are not seeking jail time, and reminded that the city’s top officials must answer to the charges, Wu joked, “Maybe we’ll just throw the mayor in jail then.”

Wu set a date of August 29 to rule on the contempt motion, and ordered the City Council to begin public hearings on August 16 to address environmental issues at the project. A city Bureau of Engineering report released this week could lead to additional public hearings.

City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo also issued a statement Friday: “We disagree with the plaintiff’s contentions and will be filing a response. We believe that when the court considers this matter, the court will conclude that the City is in full compliance with the judge’s orders.”

The Playa Vista project has been plagued with controversy since 1999, when revelations of contamination at the site surfaced, likely resulting from an oil field and a Sempra Energy gas-storage facility near the Ballona Aquifer — what once was the Los Angeles River bed. The building department required developers to construct a methane detection, prevention and monitoring system that consists of 50-foot vent wells, a gravel blanket under the buildings, pipes to pull out water from the ground and an impermeable membrane under the concrete slab of the project. The system requires continuous inspection by the city’s deputy methane inspector, the plaintiffs said. “We have no assurances that it works,” Cohen said on Friday. Sugarman, in his statement, said the city has hired independent technical experts who say it does.

THE MOTION MARKS the second time in as many months that the city has faced potential contempt charges involving the building department. General Manager Andrew Adelman is scheduled to appear in Orange County on July 27 to answer for his refusal to follow a court order and city building codes related to an illegal addition to the Pacific Palisades home of developer Mehr Beglari. Building department spokesman Dave Keim did not return calls seeking comment.

In January, the City Council approved a motion by councilmen Jack Weiss and Tom LaBonge to authorize the chief legislative analyst, with advice from the city attorney and the bureau of engineering, to contract with two groundwater-management firms to ensure that dewatering processes on the site would not result in the release of poisonous gas. Councilman Bill Rosendahl, in whose district the project is located, said at the time he was disappointed by the lack of thorough environmental review, even after a court of appeals ruled that the city and developers had failed to sufficiently address environmental concerns. On February 23, Judge Wu, who had been overturned by that ruling, issued a writ of mandate ordering the city to “vacate your approval of the methane mitigation measures for the Playa Vista First Phase Project, for the purposes of determining whether a subsequent environmental impact report or supplemental environmental impact report is required with respect to groundwater dewatering, and proceed accordingly as required by CEQA.”

A March 31 council motion by Rosendahl and Councilman Ed Reyes further called for the city to “vacate approval of the methane mitigation measures” pending a decision on whether an environmental report or a supplemental report was necessary. However, the motion, after vigorous closed-session discussion involving the City Attorney’s office, did not specify the need to proceed according to CEQA. Sources close to the matter say the City Attorney’s Office frequently takes positions that seem contrary to what courts have required. McPherson said Friday that the city has proceeded with its environmental review in secrecy, looking for an end-run around CEQA to justify premature issuance of its methane system permits and occupancy certificates. “The actions of the city have placed the health and safety of the people in danger,” the plaintiffs’ contempt motion states. “The city knowingly intended to violate the writ and did such.”

Fine, the plaintiffs’ attorney, who has taken over for Lawrence Teeter, who died recently, said the only remedy for the city is to vacate the permits and occupancy certificates issued after the entry of the writ. “The permits are vacated. They’re gone. The judge didn’t want to believe it, but it’s right there for him to see.”

Now that the methane system is in question, Fine added, the tax-free $135 million bonds the city issued on the development could come back to haunt officials. “It’s in an interim stage of default,” he said. “But first, the people who developed this project are going to have to explain to the residents of these houses and apartments just what is going on. From root to stem, this project is flawed. I anticipate that when public hearings take place, the turnout will be quite large.”