A Marina Del Rey Oil Well Blew Up. It Took A Week For Officials To Notify Neighbors

An old oil well blew open Jan. 11 at a hotel construction site in Marina del Rey. It was a spectacular failure, captured on video by several residents and passersby as a geyser of oil, gas, sand, water and drilling mud blew sky high.

But it wasn't until more than a week after the incident that state and local officials notified the public, a period of official silence that drew criticism from residents and L.A. City Councilman Mike Bonin.

"People naturally get more concerned about an incident if they were not told about it when it happened," Bonin said. "The fact that people are finding out about the emergency notice a week later through Nextdoor.com or social media posts doesn't help the situation."

Somebody from county government, like the Department of Public Health, should have been knocking on doors of the hundreds of apartments that line Via Marina across the street from the blown-out well, the councilman said.

HOW DID THE BLOWOUT HAPPEN?

A 1931 oil well along Via Marina that had been sealed in 1959 was being re-sealed to meet current-day safety standards before a new hotel parking lot is built around it.

A large crane-like rig had been set up alongside the well, and a worker was using a cable to pull a section of tubing up through the well when it broke open.

An oil rig worker who was being sprayed by the oil, gas, water and sand had to slide down a safety rope to escape the geyser, which spewed for about 10 minutes.

Los Angeles County Fire Department crews arrived, tested the air and determined that no methane or hydrogen sulfide was leaking, and then they left.

WHY DIDN'T ANYONE NOTIFY THE PUBLIC?

County Fire initially downplayed the incident, said Public Health Deputy Director Angelo Bellomo. Reports from first responders, including County Fire and DOGGR, created the impression that the leak occurred at an isolated construction site, not across the street from a densely populated area, he said.

"That should have been characterized as a blowout," Bellomo said. "It certainly looked like it was a release that could potentially affect at least people in the immediate vicinity."

"If your question is why weren't people notified at the time, it's a good question," Bellomo said. "They should have been."

Kenichi Haskett, a section chief with County Fire, defended his department's handling of the incident, since crews had determined "there was no immediate health threat" after the release.

On Jan. 18, a week after the blowout, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, put out an emergency order to well operator InterAct that said the well was unstable and could blow again.

It said the steps the firm took in the blowout's aftermath "have not been consistent with the actions required to properly control the well and protect life, health, property and natural resources."

On Jan. 19, Public Health, County Fire and state regulators finally went public with a joint statement.

What led DOGGR to issue its emergency order a week after the blowout?

Regulators and the company operating the well disagreed how to fix the problem, and the regulators get the last word, aka the emergency order.

Blowout prevention equipment installed on the well stopped the geyser after about ten minutes. At that point, the well operator, MDR Hotels LLC, did some diagnostic tests and repair work, reviewing it with DOGGR engineers.

But in the days after the blowout, the state regulators and well operator disagreed over next steps, DOGGR spokesman Donald Drysdale said.

"The differences were such that the Supervisor determined that an emergency order was necessary to require the operator to complete the work outlined in the order to protect the public and the environment," Drysdale wrote in an email.

The emergency order requires the operator to do a series of tests on the well to determine why the incident occurred, including why the blowout prevention equipment failed to prevent a blowout. A part of the study should determine whether there is damage to the well deep underground that could allow natural gas to migrate to the surface at some future date.

What's known about the well's past problems?

The 1931-vintage well wasn't producing much oil anymore and had been converted in 1940 to produce saltwater for the manufacture of iodine. Converted how? Hundreds of holes were punched in the walls of the well about 3,000 feet down to allow saltwater to flow in and rise to the surface.

A review of the well record (pages 56-58) shows that a blowout, that is, an uncontrolled release of oil or gas, occurred March 22, 1956 during the first attempt to seal it.

When the well blew in 1956 it was spewing "marsh gas, salt water and sand." Eventually, the well was sealed with wooden plugs and hundreds of bags worth of cement. To re-seal the well to today's standards, some of that cement had to be drilled through, and some drilling is necessary for the repair work as well.

Did gas escape from the nearby Playa del Rey gas storage field?

One of the fears voiced by Marina residents and environmental activists is whether gas from the nearby Playa del Rey underground gas storage field operated by Southern California Gas Co. could have come up in the blown-out well on Via Marina.

Or, to put it another way, was the MDR blowout another Aliso Canyon gas leak?

The answer, say DOGGR and SoCal Gas, is no.

"The evidence we have reviewed to date points to the leaked gas being from a naturally existing geologic source rather than from a man-made storage reservoir," Drysdale said.

The only connection between the MDR blowout well and the Playa del Rey gas storage field appears to be that both are within the footprint of the Playa del Rey oil field according to DOGGR's map. (See state oil field boundaries here.)

An old oil well that blew out in Marina del Rey Jan. 11 was within the Playa del Rey oil field footprint, but the well itself was too shallow to have reached into the Playa del Rey underground gas storage field, which is at least a mile deeper, according to state regulators and Southern California Gas Co. (California Department of Conservation)

The MDR well is far shallower than the gas storage field.

The gas in the MDR well came from a depth of approximately 2,000 feet or shallower and the well bottom is only at about 3,900 feet, Drysdale said.

"By comparison, the Playa del Rey gas storage facility (reaches into) a formation whose top is at least 6,000 feet deep, so there is several thousand feet of vertical distance and more than a quarter mile of horizontal distance between the well and the storage facility," Drysdale said.

The MDR well is not drilled into the gas storage zone, he said.

Also, the samples of gas released from the MDR well "show a chemical signature that is not characteristic of stored gas," he said. "There is far too much ethane in the released gas; gas in a storage facility would be almost entirely methane."

The MDR well record shows it had high gas pressure dating back to when the well was originally drilled in 1931, at least 10 years before the gas storage facility existed, Drysdale wrote.

DOGGR created this home page for updates and documents concerning the MDR blowout well.

UPDATE Jan. 28, 2019, 12:45p: This story has been updated with information about DOGGR's emergency order and the relation of the MDR well to a nearby gas field.

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