Tunneling Through the Tar Pits

Still from Volcano (1997) with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche

Still from Volcano (1997) with Tommy Lee Jones and Anne Heche

Although according to Mick Jackson’s Volcano (1997), the La Brea Tar Pits is home to a new volcano spewing lava all over the West Side, I see no evidence of that today. I don’t know how far fetched that movie is, but there is definitely something going on in the vicinity. Today’s Los Angeles Times contained an op-ed piece by David L. Ulin entitled “What Lies Beneath L.A.”:

For close to 20 years, my favorite landmark in Los Angeles was a pair of plastic sawhorses, each emblazoned with “City of Los Angeles Dept. of Public Works Street Services.” The sawhorses straddled a patch of pavement at the southwest corner of Wilshire and Curson, across from the La Brea Tar Pits, in front of the Craft & Folk Art Museum. They were there to warn pedestrians away from the small puddle of tar that continually seeped out of a seam in the sidewalk, a constant reminder of the instability of the ground on which this city is built.

Then the sawhorses disappeared. The seam had been repaved — a victory of human will over nature. But now, a year-and-a-half or so later, the sawhorses are back.

I don’t believe in victories of human will, especially in a landscape as elemental as Los Angeles’, which is, as we all know, riven by active faults, disfigured by tar seeps, reeking of gas leaks. In 1985, 23 people were injured when methane ignited and destroyed a Ross Dress for Less across from the Farmer’s Market, and just last year, another underground explosion blew open a manhole at this very intersection.

Today, Martine was in the area, visiting the Petersen Automotive Museum at Wilshire and Fairfax, a scant block or two from the Tar Pits. She was appalled by all the construction going on to extend the Purple Line from Wilshire and Western to (eventually) the Veterans Administration Hospital past Westwood.

Tar Bubbles at the La Brea Tar Pits

Tar Bubbles at the La Brea Tar Pits

One of the scariest scenes in Volcano was an MTA subway that meets up with a wall of lava. We are assured by the MTA that the tunneling they are doing in the area is completely safe:

Subway tunnels will be built through the use of closed-face, pressurized tunnel boring machines (TBMs). During construction, these pressure-face TBMs reduce gas exposure for workers and the public, while gassy soil and tar sands are treated and disposed of appropriately. Enhanced ventilation systems will be used where necessary to ensure tunnel and station safety and, if necessary, double gaskets for the tunnel lining or other measures may also be installed.

Where needed, tunnels and stations will be built to provide a redundant protection system against gas intrusion. This might include: physical barriers to keep gas out of the tunnels, high volume ventilation systems, gas detection systems with alarms, and emergency ventilation triggered by the gas detection systems.

During construction and operations, safety codes require rigorous and continuous gas monitoring, alarms, automatic equipment shut-off and additional personnel training.

The funny thing about assurances is that they rarely inspire much confidence. Along that line, Ulin concludes his article with a wry observation: “Standing at the corner of Wilshire and Curson, waiting for the light to change, I take solace in knowing I am in the middle of a city where the tar simply won’t stop bubbling, no matter what we do.”