Three Decades Before Porter Ranch, a Methane Explosion Derailed L.A.'s Subway Plans | KCET
Three Decades Before Porter Ranch, a Methane Explosion Derailed L.A.'s Subway Plans
Ancient forces lurk beneath the paved surfaces of Los Angeles - powerful natural processes that, when touched by humanity and its creations, threaten public safety.
Not even a disaster on the scale of the Porter Ranch leak, which pumped 80,000 metric tons of natural gas into the atmosphere until it was finally tamed yesterday, effectively demonstrates the power of those forces. Thousands of residents have been displaced, but the leak lacks the visual markers of a disaster.
Thirty-one years ago, however, the Southland's hydrocarbons made themselves visible in a surreal way.
Methane from a mysterious underground source had silently been seeping into the basement of the Ross Dress for Less in L.A.'s Fairfax District when, on the afternoon of March 24, 1985, an employee punched his timesheet in an adjoining room, emitting a spark and igniting the pool of odorless gas. The ensuing explosion launched the store's roof into the sky. It blew out the windows. It twisted the discount clothing racks into pieces of flying shrapnel. Horrified and bloodied shoppers ran outside, only to find themselves surrounded by an even more hellish landscape: the ground itself was on fire, as flames licked up from cracks in the concrete. No one died, but in all 23 people were hospitalized.
In the aftermath, it was clear that the paved and mostly impermeable surfaces of the modern city had trapped the explosive methane, allowing it to pool in dangerous quantities, but in the months and then years that followed, investigators could not agree on the gas's origins. The Ross Dress for Less sat atop the old Salt Lake oil field, and one theory suggested that gas had escaped from the depths by way of an improperly capped well. Another looked to a shallower source: the decay of organic matter in the underlying soil. Yet another pointed to the role of small faults opened up in historic times by hydraulic fracturing.
Amid the scientific uncertainty, a political resolution emerged.
Beneath the Fairfax district lay not only methane pockets and ancient oil reservoirs, but alsothe proposed route of the Metro Rail subway. Plans approved in the early 1980s showed the rapid-transit line tunneling beneath Wilshire Boulevard between downtown and the Fairfax district, then turning north toward West Hollywood - a route that made sense as a transit corridor between major job and population centers, but which residents of surrounding neighborhoods bitterly opposed for a host of controversial reasons.
Their elected representatives, led by U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, seized on the explosion as another rationale against the project. Biblical imagery of a land on fire was all they needed to derail an already-controversial project. By the end of 1985, officials had re-rerouted the subway around from the Fairfax district and its methane fields. Instead, it would tunnel up Vermont Avenue toward Hollywood.
Three decades later, advances in boring machines and construction methods have (somewhat) quelled concerns about tunneling through a methane field -- the Purple Line extension now under construction will track straight down Wilshire -- but the Ross Dress for Less explosion remains a powerful reminder of the natural forces hidden deep beneath the city's pavement.
- Elkind, Ethan N. Railtown: The Fight for the Los Angeles Metro Rail and the Future of the City. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2014.
- Fox, William L. Making Time: Essays on the Nature of Los Angeles. Emeryville, CA: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2007.
- Manaugh, Geoff. "The Fiery Underground Oil Pit Eating L.A." The Daily Beast, Dec. 6, 2014.
L.A. as Subject is an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, cultural institutions, and private collectors. Hosted by theUSC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region.
What is knowledge? What kinds of things do we know, and how do we learn them? Philosopher and professor Tyler Burge, evolutionary biologist and podcaster Shane Campbell-Staton and theater artist Sylvan Oswald answer these questions.
The influence of the Texas Rangers on border militarizaton stretches from its creation in the 19th century, through the inception of Border Patrol and ties to the NRA, to the Minutemen movement that rose to prominence in the early 21st century.
How is it that the conditions that children are born into can differ so much between two adjacent neighborhoods?
What is a university? It's not just a place to find a job, it could be more. What is its role today and how can it be better? Get some insights in bullet point form.
- 1 of 208
- next ›
This episode explores how Yosemite has changed over time: from a land maintained by indigenous peoples; to its emergence as a tourist attraction; to the site of conflict over humanity’s relationship with nature.
California’s deserts have sparked imaginations around the world. This episode explores the creation of the Salton Sea; the effort to preserve Joshua Tree National Park; and how commercial interests created desert utopias like Palm Springs.
This episode explores how surfers, bodybuilders, and acrobats taught Californians how to have fun and stay young at the beach — and how the 1966 documentary The Endless Summer shared the Southern California idea of the beach with the rest of the world.
From its origins as a seaside resort to its fame as a countercultural hub, Venice Beach boasts a rich history. This episode explores the original plans for Venice, the Beat poets who lived there and the history of the Abbot Kinney commercial district.
- 1 of 4
- next ›