Blowout at abandoned oil well spews gas and mud 60 feet into the air at the hotel construction site near Via Marina and Tahiti Way
By Gary Walker and Joe Piasecki
State oil and gas regulators, local firefighters and public health officials are continuing to monitor an abandoned 1930s oil well in Marina del Rey that ruptured during repairs, spewing a mixture of methane gas and mud 60 feet into the air at the hotel construction site near Via Marina and Tahiti Way.
“There was a very loud noise — like our pressure cooker releasing steam, but much louder,” said Cynthia Lynn, who witnessed the Jan. 11 blowout from inside her upper-floor condominium across the street and notified first responders.
Video recorded by another witness shows what looks like a mix of vapor and liquid, alternately smoke gray and soot black, blasting skyward from a vertical pipe opening. In the video footage, which can be viewed at argonautnews.com, a worker quickly escapes a scaffolding platform above the spewing gas and liquid by rappelling down a metal safety cable.
The eruption lasted for around 15 minutes, but there has been noise, lights and activity around the well night and day since, according to several people who live nearby.
The California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, known as DOGGR, issued an emergency order about the well on Jan. 18. “Because of the serious concerns about the structural integrity of the well and the sensitive location of the well, efforts to secure the site and properly plug and abandon the well must be taken without delay,” the document states.
Public agencies have given no indication that the well poses any danger to residents, but neighbors’ concerns appear to be heightened because many who live near the well found out about the blowout through word of mouth or after neighbors shared the emergency order on social media.
As of Tuesday, “The well is under control,” said DOGGR spokeswoman Teresa Schilling. “The Los Angeles County Fire Department will issue a public update if anything changes.”
According to the DOGGR report, contractors hired by the developers of the future Courtyard Marriott Hotel and Residence Inn were working to bring the abandoned oil well into compliance with current regulatory standards when the “uncontrolled release of fluids, including gas, occurred” after a worker pulled old tubing out of the long-inactive well.
MDR Hotels declined to comment. The contractor, a company called Interact, could not be reached.
DOGGR, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, and the county fire department’s Health and Hazardous Materials Unit have been monitoring the site around the clock, Los Angeles County Fire Section Chief Kenichi Haskett said.
The fire department will be keeping an eye on Interact’s progress for as long as it takes to bring the well into compliance, and “it could take two weeks to six months,” Haskett said.
Despite air quality concerns, “At this time no measurable readings for natural gas have been recorded in the air,” states a Jan. 19 notice issued by the Department of Public Health notice.
Meanwhile, public health officials are asking Interact to develop and implement a community health plan to “ensure that the public is fully aware of site activities and notified of any significant developments as the project proceeds,” the notice reads.
The well underneath the hotel construction site is just one of more than 100 plugged or idle oil and gas wells under the narrow strip of land between Washington Boulevard and the entrance to Marina del Rey Harbor, according to DOGGR.
Historic public records show the well has been inactive since a blowout occurred in March of 1956. The Ohio Oil Company drilled the well in 1931, boring 3,426 feet under what was then swampland, part of a 258-acre parcel leased from the Recreation Gun Club. By 1940, the well was pumping more water than oil and the DOW Chemical Company began using it to pump saltwater for the production of iodine. The well was plugged with cement after it began “blowing marsh gas, saltwater and sand,” according to a 1956 state memo, with the gas appearing to originate at a depth of about 1,800 feet.
On his Facebook account Wednesday, L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin posted that he was “particularly concerned at the lack of notification to neighbors” and that the incident “also raises concerns about other old and abandoned wells in the Playa del Rey oilfield area.”