MONTEBELLO — The weather turned cold with the approach of winter but a lingering fear kept Rosemary Orozco from using the fireplace or heater in her home.
Methane gas was detected months earlier seeping from the ground near the family garage, and every now and then a worker carrying a monitoring device would pass through the Balanda Drive neighborhood.
"It's been getting pretty cold in the last two or three weeks and we were just freezing," said Orozco, explaining why she decided to call the Fire Department to check her house.
On Dec. 10, the Fire Department detected trace amounts of methane gas in the Orozcos' home. They were advised to temporarily leave the house within three to six days.
The seeping gas was first discovered in September by Southern California Gas Co., which has been surveying a large area of Montebello for gas leaking from its underground natural-gas storage facility here. But chemical analysis of the leak revealed that it was not gas stored and sold by the gas company.
The gas was traced to an abandoned oil well under the Orozcos' garage owned by the Los Angeles-based Unocal Corp. The gas was almost pure methane, the main constituent of natural gas, said Charles Ford, emergency services coordinator for the Montebello Fire Department.
"It's a drastic situation for us," said Orozco, who moved with her husband, Angel, and her two daughters to temporary quarters. "I never anticipated that I'd have to leave my house, especially at this time of year."
Life is always a little uneasy for some residents of this city, parts of which are above hundreds of abandoned oil wells, potential sources of explosive methane gas.
Adding to this concern is the gas company's storage facility. Southern California Gas pipes in and stores up to 12 billion cubic feet of natural gas in porous underground depositories that once held oil and gas about a mile and a half below Montebello.
15 Years of Leaks
Leaks from the storage facility have been occurring for more than 15 years, resulting in the evacuation and demolition of five homes since the mid-1970s.
The gas company has been sued by residents who want to shut down the storage operation until it can be shown to be leakproof. But gas company officials have maintained that the leaks have not reached explosive levels or endangered the health and safety of residents.
The gas company monitors a mile-long and half-mile-wide area in Montebello where gas could migrate through the network of abandoned wells and pose a danger to residents.
The Fire Department took over monitoring responsibilities after being notified of gas escaping from the Orozcos' yard after the gas company inspection Sept. 19.
The Orozcos were not initially advised to relocate because the gas had only been detected outside their home, where it was dispersing rapidly and posed little danger, Ford said.
"I imagine if someone stood over there with a blowtorch and tried to light it we would have had a problem, but it would have taken something drastic," he said.
But then Orozco called to be sure it was safe to light her fireplace or use the heater, and when the Fire Department again checked inside the home, minute amounts of gas were detected.
"What concerned us was that we had no reading (detecting gas) prior to that in the house," Ford said, and that they might get "a sudden pulse or a sudden rise" of gas, which occured in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles in 1985.
Methane gas leaking from old oil wells exploded in a Fairfax District discount store, injuring 22 people. Abandoned wells can repressurize themselves as water intrudes into a field, forcing the remaining oil and gas upward.
Unocal is paying for the cost of temporarily relocating the Orozcos, who should be able to return to their home after the old well is resealed or "re-abandoned," Unocal spokesman Barry Lane said.
The oil well, which is 7,000 feet deep, was drilled in 1919 and has been closed since 1954, Lane said. Unocal will pressure test and reseal the well with cement.
No Other Homes Threatened
The garage will have to be dismantled and rebuilt after the well is sealed, Lane said. No other homes in the area are threatened, officials said.
"We're going in and re-abandoning the well and hopefully that will solve the problem," said Lane, who added that he did not know the cost of sealing the well, rebuilding the garage and relocating the Orozcos.
The lawsuit against the gas company was originally filed in 1984 by 38 residents, but the number of plaintiffs has grown to more than 200. It alleges that the gas company 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.
In addition to blocking use of the storage facility, the suit seeks damages for alleged loss in property values, injury and emotional and physical stress.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Norman R. Dowds in January stayed the case until the residents can exhaust their administrative remedies before the state Public Utilities Commission. But attorney Jerry Gordon, who represents the Montebello residents, said he will ask the judge to lift the stay in the next month.
Leo Escarcega, one of the original plaintiffs in the case, said last week he would like the gas company to buy his 19th Street home, which is above an abandoned oil well.
Escarcega first found out about the problem in August, 1982, when he received a letter from the gas company informing him of a "routine leak-detection survey." He and his wife have lived in the house for 18 years.
"They come and check it but they tell me it's not dangerous as of yet," Escarcega said last week. "There are nights when we can't sleep. We can't enjoy our lives. If we could afford it we would have been out of here a long time ago."