Oil well blowout leaves Marina del Rey residents less confident about receiving vital information from public health and safety officials

By Gary Walker

Nearly two months since an abandoned oil well blowout spewed a geyser of mud and methane gas in Marina del Rey, residents remain upset that it took a whole week for public officials to communicate with neighbors about the situation — and then only after eyewitness accounts of the rupture fueled anxiety and speculation on social media.

And although no one was injured by the blowout and Los Angeles County officials have been providing a steady stream of detailed updates about ongoing work at the well, more than a few locals say they’ve lost confidence that health and safety officials are willing to be transparent and truthful with the public.

On Feb. 19, Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin addressed roughly 75 people at a meeting of the Sierra Club’s Airport Marina Group about the city’s plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, including the impending closure of the Scattergood Power Plant. But the majority of attendees who spoke up turned the event into a public forum for disaffected residents unsatisfied with Los Angeles County’s response to the blowout, which occurred on unincorporated land outside of Bonin’s jurisdiction.

Others have been upset that the first information about the blowout they received was a report by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) showing up on the social networking service Nextdoor.

“The information they provide is extremely generic. When it’s something that affects your home, using social media is not the best way to communicate,” said Jenesa Kurland, a resident of the Marina Strand Colony.

“They told everybody in Aliso Canyon that it was safe there, and look what happened,” Anne Kirkpatrick, a 25-year resident of Marina Harbor Apartments, said in reference to the massive 2015 gas leak in Porter Ranch.

Tensions are high enough about the 1930s oil well — still undergoing repairs and being monitored by public agencies, according to frequent updates being dis-
seminated via email by the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors — that neighbors became alarmed once again when on March 1 witnesses reported seeing a shower of sparks at the hotel construction site along Via Marina where the blowout occurred.

The incident turned out to be the result an overheated power extension cord, which firefighters quickly unplugged, and was unrelated to ongoing repairs at the abandoned well, said Los Angeles County Fire Section Chief Kenichi Haskett.

On Feb. 22, state and county officials released a collaborative Community Health, Safety and Notification Plan detailing how agencies are monitoring the ongoing work by contractors to secure the well and plan to keep residents informed.

The report states that, in the event of another blowout or gas leak, residents in the immediate vicinity are to be notified immediately through local media, a press conference, social media updates, online posts or notifications delivered in person door-to-door. The hotel developer has also established (310) 908-1236 and mdrhotelshotline@gmail.com as a point of contact for residents.

During the Airport Marina Group meeting, former California Assemblymember Betsy Butler recalled participating in 2012 state hearings about oil
and gas operations in which DOGGR denied involvement with hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking,” only to reverse that statement a few months later.

“If you think DOGGR is any more prepared to help us, I would say not,” commented Butler, who lives near the hotel construction site.

L.A. County Supervisor Janice Hahn, whose district includes Marina del Rey, has ordered the Department of Public Health and L.A. County Fire Department to review their emergency communication procedures and report to the board how the public notification process may be improved.

Beaches and Harbors spokesperson Carol Baker noted that since late January, the department has been working with other agencies to issue at least three public notifications per week about the progress of work at the oil well.

“There has been constant communication since the incident. Thankfully no one was required to evacuate [during the blowout] because there was no immediate threat to health and safety,” Baker said.

Sign up for notifications from the department at beaches.lacounty.gov and for county evacuation alerts at lacounty.gov/emergency/alert-la.