Slow public notification during Marina del Rey oil well blowout prompts county review

By Gary Walker

Workers repair last week’s gas leak at Via Marina and Marquesas Way
Photo by Joseph Cahn

The Jan. 11 blowout at an abandoned 1930s oil well along Via Marina and an apparently unrelated gas pipeline leak about a block away on Jan. 30 do have at least one thing in common: nearby residents received little to no information about what was happening until well after the fact.

In response to concerns voiced on social media and complaints directed at public officials, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn received unanimous support from board colleagues on Tuesday for directing county public health officials and firefighters to review their public notification procedures. The agencies will report back to the supervisors in March.

“Communication to the surrounding areas was inconsistent, confusing and really untimely. And communication is so important in responding to incidents like these — especially when they involve oil well ‘blowouts’ and gas leaks. Our residents look to the county and rely on us for immediate, accurate information,” Hahn, whose district includes Marina del Rey, said during the meeting.

L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin, who represents residents of the nearby Silver Strand, has also complained about lack of notification to residents during and after the oil well blowout.

Damon Nagami, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Southern California Ecosystems Project, believes taking a fresh look at county notification policies is long overdue.

“The state and the county could put new notification processes in place. You never know when the next blowout is going to happen. We can’t have our government take a head-in-the-sand approach to these potential problems,” Nagami said.

According to SoCalGas, the “small non-hazardous natural gas leak” at Via Marina and Marquesas Way was totally unrelated to the oil well blowout, and repairs to the gas line have been completed.

Repairs to the abandoned oil well were still ongoing as of Tuesday, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Beaches and Harbors, which oversees the general operations of Marina del Rey.

Beaches and Harbors became part of a joint incident command after the arrival of state oil and gas regulators and has been issuing public updates about work at the well since the week of Jan. 21.

“We feel that our role is to contribute what we can to the joint messages from other agencies and amplify it by pushing the incident reports out to the community,” Beaches and Harbors spokesperson Carol Baker said.

Firefighters specializing in hazardous materials responded to the eruption of methane and mud at the hotel construction site near Tahiti Way, triggered by contractors working to bring the long-sealed well up to current state standards. County public health officials and state oil and gas regulators soon joined them in continuously monitoring the site.

But aside from a handful of people who witnessed the eruption, local residents got their first information about the blowout from any government source more than a week later, when a Jan. 18 emergency order by the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources started spreading on social media.

A methane monitoring device placed near the oil well by the South Coast Air Quality Management District was what detected the gas pipeline leak near the new Neptune Marina Apartments at Via Marina and Marquesas Way. When SoCalGas workers came out to repair the leak, some locals who were already on edge because of the oil well blowout felt they were once again in the dark.

Marina del Rey Lessees Association President David Levine, who is in charge of the Shores apartments at Via Marina and Panay Way, said he first learned about the oil well blowout from one of his tenants.

“The lessees would like to be in the position of notifying residents and their staffs about serious issues as quickly as possible,” he said. “We understand that there can be multiple state as well as local agencies that must be consulted as part of that process, and we hope that all levels of government can work together.”