August 2006: Burning Questions Investigation Update

POSTED: 4:52 pm PDT July 28, 2006

LOS ANGELES -- KNBC has already aired in-depth reports on the possible underground gas dangers at the Playa Vista luxury community.

There are new questions as KNBC focused on a city agency and how it's handling the area.

Following is a verbatim script from the on-air report.

INFOMERCIAL: It's Playa Vista, a national model for urban living that's being studied around the world.

PAUL MOYER: It's an infomercial for Playa Vista, one of the most ambitious real-estate projects in the United States, home to 4,000 residents and counting, on choice coastal property near Marina del Rey.

STEVE SOBOROFF, PLAYA PRESIDENT: Traffic is better. The environment is better. We're making a positive difference in a lot of ways.

MOYER: Playa President Steve Soboroff makes a pitch that's all positive never mentioning the underside of this idyllic community, the presence of huge methane gas concentrations beneath the site.

UNIDENTIFIED GOVERNMENT SCIENTIST: There is a lot of concern with methane concentrations. If someone took an honest look at that, it could very much derail the project.

MOYER: This individual is a government scientist who's worked on safety issues at Playa, speaking anonymously to protect his job. He says not enough is known about the contamination problems at the site because, in his view, the city's chief watchdog agency, the LA Department of Building and Safety, has become a lapdog for the developer.

UNIDENTIFIED CRITIC: LA Building and Safety has been complicit with getting this project accomplished. They really don't want to know what the problems are at the site or how much threat there is to the human population out there.

MOYER: In approving Playa Vista in 2001, the City Council ordered gas safety systems installed, including protective membranes under the buildings and gas detectors inside. It also directed the Building and Safety Department to monitor these devices and keep other agencies informed. Critics say that where things fell apart.

FLORENCE GHARABIAN, CALIFORNIA DEPT OF TOXIC SUBSTANCES CONTROL: There is no monitoring data...None certainly provided to our department.

MOYER: Florence Gharibian of the California Department of Toxic Substances Control has complained repeatedly to city officials about the lack of inspection data on Playa's safety systems. Without it, she says there's no way to know if they're working properly and if the site is safe

GHARIBIAN: We're not really working with all the information we need to make those kinds of judgments.

MOYER: To assure oversight, the City Council ordered Building and Safety, together with the fire Department, to prepare annual reports on methane hotspots throughout the city, including Playa, and to create a Task Force, open to the public, to keep the community informed of safety issues

COUNCILMAN BILL ROSENDAHL: All that information should be disclosed. Remember we have 4000 people living there and their safety is my number one concern.

MOYER: Councilman Bill Rosendahl, whose district includes Playa Vista, recently asked Building and Safety for copies of the annual reports, which he expected to date back several years. All he got back, he says, was a single document, prepared recently, that contained few specifics and no mention of Playa Vista.

ROSENDAHL: It's confusing and it's potentially manipulative and obviously. I'm not happy.

MOYER: As for the public Task Force, he says Building and Fire officials tried to convince him that it exists when it doesn't. In this letter to them he accused them of "either an egregious mistake or a flagrant disregard for a Directive from the City Council."

ROSENDAHL: I'm insulted. The direction from the city council was clear of how this process was to go forward. It was stamped by the city council of Los Angeles. They seem to have ignored it.

MOYER: Also ignored, say critics, are city ordinances requiring an orderly approach to the issuing of Building and Safety permits at Playa Vista, including permits to insure the methane controls are in place.

PATRICIA MCPHERSON, ENVIRONMENTALIST: People could die as a result of these things not being implemented properly.

MOYER: When environmentalist Patricia McPherson recently examined Building and Safety's permit files, she says she found mistakes anyone could spot, especially in methane permits like the one for a building at Playa.

MCPHERSON: This permit was issued before they were even able to inspect it for the methane systems.

RANDALL AKERS, FORMER INSPECTOR: There seems to be evidence that there were actually gas leakages in some of these areas subsequent to their being finished and inspected.

MOYER: Randall Akers is a former inspector for the Department of Building and Safety and now a land-use risk consultant. He reviewed permit documents collected by NBC4 staff and found what he says are large flaws in the inspection data.

AKERS: There are deputy inspector records missing. Irregularities as to the timing of when permits were opened and closed and re-opened that are very unusual. I can't find any evidence on some of the buildings that the membranes were installed and the various devices to continuously monitor the gas flows were installed.

MOYER: And, he says, there's evidence that permits for gas safeguards in some buildings were finalized only after residents moved in and were exposed to risk.

AKERS: The fact that those were reactivated and finalized, considerably the buildings were occupied, is either an indication of a very serious paperwork problem. I hope it's not an indication that the membranes weren't installed or inspected.

MOYER: Building and Safety refused to be interviewed for this story. In a written comment it states, without offering proof, "all methane mitigation systems…of each building [at Playa Vista] have been completed and inspected and approved before that building is occupied."

Akers isn't convinced.

AKERS: There are certainly a number of buildings that I wouldn't consider moving into. I'd want to visually inspect and verify that all the things are in place. If they weren't, I wouldn't want to move my family in. It just isn't worth the risk.

MOYER: Last February, a judge ordered the city to stop approving methane safeguards for Playa Vista pending a review of related issues. But Building and Safety documents show the agency has continued to issue permits anyway. Richard Fine, working for environmentalists, is suing the city for contempt

RICHARD FINE: The city wishes and actually is avoiding the court order and I expect the reason for that is the city does not wish to deal with the problems of methane mitigation.

MOYER: As for the Building and Safety Department itself…

FINE: It's like a group of cowboys that are sitting out there running around without any authority. They are operating totally illegally.

MOYER: City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo, who's reported receiving $20,000 in political contributions from Playa Vista lobbyists since 2003, rejects the contempt charges and, in a written statement, he expresses confidence that [quote] "the court will find the city in full compliance with court orders."

MOYER: Others are more cautious.

LAURA CHICK, CITY CONTROLLER: This is a department that's had problems for a long time.

MOYER: City Controller Laura Chick recently conducted a hard-hitting audit of the Building and Safety Department as a whole.

CHICK: They need to have their supervising inspectors start supervising.

MOYER: Her study found evidence of…"deputy inspectors making false or misleading statements… 140,000 open permits [citywide]… no performance measures ensuring inspections are completed…." – findings eerily reminiscent of what we discovered at Playa Vista.

CHICK: When you find an area that's soft on control you find opportunities for waste, fraud and wrongdoing.

MOYER: And at Playa, say critics, you find the potential for something even worse, a methane accident.

LA MAYOR ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: (looking at NBC4's study) This is the kind of thing that upsets me to no end, I can tell you.

MOYER: NBC4 supplied the Mayor with a written summary of our findings.

MOYER: In documents that we got we discovered that in a couple of buildings, more than a couple, people moved in before Building and Safety signed off on the mitigation devices. People were there before that happened.

VILLARAIGOSA: If these allegations are true and this is the tip of the iceberg it would cause me great alarm and great concern.

MOYER: Antonio Villaraigosa opposed Playa Vista as a city council member and many of its problems predate his administration

VILLARAIGOSA: But I'm responsible!

MOYER: Now it's your Building and Safety and in some respects it's your Playa Vista. So what are you going to do?

VILLARAIGOSA: I'm going to make sure that the Department of Building and Safety respond immediately and we're going to figure out some independent way to verify that these responses are in fact adequate and accurate.

MOYER: Building and Safety's denials are provided in a written statement -- with no backup documentation -- below. Playa Vista's written statement, insisting that the site is safe, is also included, again with no back up documentation. You can also find the written findings NBC4 supplied the Mayor, with a sampling of the thousands of methane permits we examined -- and tips on how to access them yourself.

LA Fire Department: Playa Vista Project

The Los Angeles Fire Department has taken an active role in ensuing compliance on the Playa Vista land development project and that all construction meets the provisions of the la municipal code, fire code, and building code. In regards to the methane, the fire department has worked collaboratively with the department of building and safety to establish guidelines for the mitigation of methane throughout the development. The Los Angeles Fire Department will continue to provide oversight and enforcement throughout the completion of this project. Furthermore, we will provide property inspections for as long as the project remains within the city of Los Angeles boundaries.

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