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The Last Stand

The plaintiffs opposing Playa Vista this time around are called the Grassroots Coalition, Earthways Foundation and Spirit of the Sage Council. The last is, according to the filing, unincorporated. The Coalition, Foundation and Council‘s action, termed in its press release a “lawsuit,” was actually a petition for writ of mandate. In this case, this means a request for an order to stop construction on the nearly 2-square-mile site near Marina del Rey until a new environmental-impact report (EIR), thoroughly analyzing on-site gas hazards, is done “by the city of Los Angeles.”

The organization names weren’t too familiar. But this was definitely the latest legal attempt by the organizations linked to the Ballona Action Network to put a spoke in Playa‘s wheel. What’s odd about this proposal for a new EIR is that it emerged at nearly the same time as the release of just such a report. This document, by a Texas firm called Exploration Technologies Inc. (ETI), was commissioned by -- guess what? -- the city of Los Angeles. It can‘t have much pleased the folks at Playa Vista, with their plans for a new community of more than 20,000 people, adjacent to some 300 acres of original and restored wetlands. The report said many things, but the dollars and cents of it was that the developers now must pay a whopping, if undetermined, surcharge to make all their initial development areas -- including the one in which homes are now being sold -- sufficiently gas-safe.

And, as a bonus hazard, not just to Playa Vista but to the Westside itself, ETI found an unknown earthquake fault, paralleling Lincoln Boulevard, the area’s busiest secondary artery. The fault, the report maintains, has been inactive for 11,000 years, but does leak methane gas from the depths of the Earth. It would leak much more, the report said, after a major quake.

ETI couldn‘t determine exactly how much natural gas -- mostly methane -- lies under the project area, despite the fact that the company drilled more than 40 test wells. Although the tests found almost no traces of far more dangerous gases such as benzene, this basic, flammable (it’s the major constituent of natural gas) methane can never be eliminated, the report said, since it is “thermogenic” -- generated constantly by geological heat. But the $1 million report confirmed both of last year‘s city findings that only 2.3 percent of the project areas had high -- more than 50 percent -- methane concentrations in the soil vapors tested. That is to say, in the naturally occurring vapors and gases -- I stress this point, because the opponents’ petition asserts (as did their attorney Rosemary Woodlock when I questioned her) that over 50 percent by volume of certain soils themselves are methane gas. Which, when you think of it, would make such soil hard to walk, let alone build, on. According to Playa Vista, even the highest methane concentration adds up to about 3 ounces per ton of soil.

In conclusion, ETI said that there should be gas mitigation (mechanical venting) on all the planned Playa Vista buildings, another way of saying the dangers could be mitigated. It also recommended that other gassy areas -- particularly those over an antediluvian underground gravel riverbed -- be “monitored.” But ETI also slapped the wrists of both the city and the developer when it added that “in the future” methane testing should be done on all suspect local building sites before the zoning is granted -- particularly including the pending Playa Vista II; in other words, “Why the hell are you just now getting around to doing this?” ETI added that the city building code should mandate more extensive methane site testing throughout the city. Well, these guys are in the methane-testing business.

Apart from the fact that the ETI report didn‘t offer exact figures for how much methane is under Playa Vista at any one time, it seems exhaustive: Its credibility is enhanced, if anything, by ETI’s willingness to bite the city hand that fed it and to criticize the developer for lackluster gas-safety research. This is the third city-engendered report so far on Playa Vista methane, however, to reach roughly the same overall conclusions regarding site safety. Could another report find out more? Probably. Is it necessary?

Here, unfortunately, the opponents don‘t make a case.

Or they make too much of one; the arguments in their petition get scattered all over the map -- literally. There’s an assertion that much of the gas under Playa Vista comes from an underground Gas Company reservoir a quarter of a mile away, which seems to be to link Playa with the untried civil case of a Playa del Rey resident who claims to have contracted cancer from vapors emitted by said reservoir. The ETI report -- and its official predecessors -- thoroughly refutes any connection between Playa and the reservoir. Nonetheless, attorney Rosemary Woodlock referred (in a press release) to “the danger posed by gas injection, storage and extraction under this city-sized development.” A nifty feat of geographical legerdemain.

Woodlock told me in a phone conversation that the “new information” referred to in the petition as justifying the need for a new EIR comes from the ETI study -- even though the “new information” as referred to in the petition is connected to the unproven Gas Company reservoir leakage, which the ETI report denies. Possibly, Woodlock simply did not have the complete ETI report before filing the petition, and was erroneously informed about it. (ETI‘s report was completed April 17, but its official release followed the April 25 petition filing.) Otherwise, her pleading draws on the contents of depositions and other documents filed with Stadish v. So. Cal. Gas Co., the above- cited, apparently unrelated gas-reservoir health-hazard case. These papers the petition calls “evidence,” a highly irregular way of referring to plaintiff’s paperwork that has not yet gone to trial, nor, so far as I could determine, even an evidentiary pre-trial hearing. (Stadish‘s attorney did not return my calls.) Legally speaking, the two cases are as distinct from one another as the Playa del Rey gas reservoir is from Playa Vista, yet the petition’s fundamental strategy is to mix and meld them.

But this sort of melding of fact and distortion has been the Playa opponents‘ root strategy from the very beginning. To the self-styled Wetlands activists, the truth about what’s actually going on in Playa Vista often seems to be a closed book in a sealed briefcase deposited in a welded-shut steel safe in a cavern at the bottom of the Marianas Trench.

Take documentary filmmaker Sheila Laffey‘s anti--Playa Vista film, The Last Stand, for instance. This is probably the most beautifully made documentary I have ever seen that is, fundamentally, based on a lie. It’s been around for a year or so, but got another PBS airing recently in what I suppose you might call a director‘s cut. I never saw the earlier version.

But I saw this one. I saw the brisk intercutting between the shots of flying herons and spawning fish in transparent waters and those shots of bulldozers tearing up landscape. I knew that the one didn’t have anything to do with the other; but no one seeing the movies without prior knowledge could avoid the conclusion that the dozers were out to get the hatchlings and the shore birds. Even though one might recall that bulldozers, after all, are a bad choice of weapon to destroy wetlands because, come to think of it, they do not float. Of course, the intent here is to elude the fact that when the project -- which includes a section of restored wetlands -- is complete, there will be more wetlands than before construction began.

Ed Asner, a good man for parroting scripts, did a standup, telling us that these lands had to be saved. Behind him were some attractive sloping areas which happened to have already been saved -- and revegetated -- as, original Playa activist Ruth Lansford reminds us, a result of the compromise by which more than half of Playa Vista remains open space. Out of such techniques, the Soviets and the CIA used to make marvelous propaganda movies. Their craft has not been lost.

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