MONTEBELLO — The Southern California Gas Co. has discovered and is repairing a natural gas leak in the northeastern part of the city and has received city permission to drill a well to control another leak that began in 1978 in the same area.
The leaks, in the neighborhood around Montebello Boulevard and Michael Collins Circle, are "minute" and not believed to be dangerous, gas company officials said.
"There are very small quantities of gas within that Michael Collins Circle area," said Robert Salmon, manager of the gas company's Southeast division. "It's been that way for a long time, but never at a level of great concern. We've just been watching it."
The most recent leak was discovered July 30 and is believed to be escaping through an abandoned oil well under a vacant lot, Salmon said, adding that it is 200 feet from the closest residence. The company began excavating the site on Aug. 19 to determine what is wrong with the well, he said, but by the first week in September still had not determined what the problem is.
Leak's Origin Unknown
The exact origin of the 1978 leak is also not yet known, Salmon said, but it is coming from either the gas company's underground storage field or some other part of its operations, which include extensive pipelines to and from the storage area.
The company has been venting the gas through holes it drilled in the street and now wants to drill a well on Montebello Boulevard to draw out the migrating gas, he said.
Although the city Planning Commission has approved a permit for the well, it did so under the condition that the company obtain a strip of land near the well site and deed it to the city. The company is appealing the provision, lawyers for the gas company said.
Leaks from the gas company's underground storage field have been occurring for the last 15 years, resulting in the evacuation and demolition of a total of five homes: on Avenida de la Merced in 1970, on Third Street in 1974 and on Maple Avenue and El Camino in 1983, according to the gas company.
Gas company officials have maintained that the leaks have not reached explosive levels or endangered the health and safety of residents.
They said the homes, which the company purchased from the owners, were razed because the company needed access to abandoned oil wells that provided an escape path for the gas, and not because gas readings had reached dangerous levels.
In December, a group of other residents sued the company in Los Angeles Superior Court, charging that it allowed explosive levels of gas to seep into homes and neighborhoods and that it has withheld information about the extent of the danger to residents.
The suit asks that the company stop storing gas underground and seeks $200 million in punitive and other damages for loss of property value, injury and emotional and physical stress.
Originally filed by 38 residents, the suit has grown to include 200 residents.
The gas company has declined comment on the suit.
The storage area was once an oil field and contains 257 abandoned oil wells--pipes that were inserted into the ground to extract oil. Some of the wells were not sealed properly or have deteriorated, providing a channel for the gas to escape to the surface, gas company officials said.
Similarly, if cement casings around the pipes deteriorate, gas can also escape through that route, company officials said. They said that the company monitors the wells and leaks, repairing the wells when needed.
To store the natural gas, the company injects it into a sandstone formation 8,000 feet underground that once held oil. The gas fills in the gaps in the porous rock, the way coffee can saturate a sugar cube without affecting its structure, gas company officials said.
After it discovered the 1978 leak, the company began venting the gas through holes in the center of the street on Michael Collins Circle, Salmon said, adding that the amounts of gas escaping are too minute to be stored or used.
The company now wants to drill a well in an exploratory move to not only find the source of the seepage but to also allow monitoring of the area, he said.
The city Planning Commission granted the gas company a permit for the well under the condition that the utility company obtain a 10- to 20-foot strip of land along Montebello Boulevard and deed it to the city, which is widening the boulevard, he said. The gas company would have to obtain the land from its owner, Chevron Oil, which operates an oil field nearby. Chevron has given the gas company permission to drill the well, Salmon said.
Lawyers for the gas company have met with city planning officials to discuss the legality of the conditions the city wants to attach to the permit. A decision on those conditions is expected sometime in mid-September, said Richard Torres, assistant city manager.
Meanwhile, the gas company has installed a vacuum system consisting of an eight-inch pipeline that is taking the gas from the street to the nearby Chevron property and venting it into the atmosphere. By the end of this week, Salmon said, the gas will be piped into a venting stack near the gas company's headquarters on Howard Avenue and released into the air.