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Leak at Abandoned Oil Well Seen as Threat to Bay

January 20, 1994|MICHELE FUETSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

An abandoned oil well in Hermosa Beach is leaking as much as 100 gallons of crude oil a week, and Terry Tamminen of Santa Monica Baykeeper, an environmental watchdog group, is trying to get it capped.

"In the next 90 days," Tamminen said, "we're going to have storms that are going to wash that oil into a storm drain and into the bay."

Local and state officials agree that the well needs capping to keep the black, sticky crude from oozing out of the ground and finding its way into the marine world. The oil, they say, is being vacuumed up weekly until a permanent solution is found.

That is not enough for Tamminen, who founded Baykeeper. He wants the well, on a vacant lot at Cypress Avenue and 6th Street, capped at once, and he took his crusade to the Hermosa Beach City Council last week.

"The bay," he said, "is one of the few shallow, protected areas along the Southern California coast where fish can breathe and other marine microorganisms can regenerate."

There is an abundance of plant life, such as giant kelp, in the bay, Tamminen said. "So, if you contaminate these fragile, shallow areas, you're basically breaking the lower food chain."

City and state officials say they are not responsible for the leaking well.

"Oil wells," said Michael A. Schubach, Hermosa Beach planning director and interim building director, "are essentially a responsibility of the state Division of Oil and Gas."

Councilman John Bowler said the city is "kind of between the devil and the deep blue sea for the moment."

If it assumes too much responsibility, Bowler said, Hermosa Beach could end up paying to have the well capped and could become legally responsible for the property on which it is located.

Pamela Morris, spokeswoman for the state Department of Conservation and its oil and gas division, said the state is trying to work out a cooperative solution to the problem with the owner of the lot and the well, Stinnett Oil Co., a small, private firm in Temecula.

"It's really an issue for the operator," Morris said of the leaking well. Stinnett officials did not return telephone calls from The Times, but Morris said the firm has been extremely cooperative.

According to state records, Morris said, the well was drilled in 1930, acquired by Stinnett in 1972 and abandoned five years ago.

When wells are abandoned, they are supposed to be securely capped under the supervision of the state. Sometimes, however, underground pipes or caps corrode, allowing oil to seep out.

Then, Tamminen said, the area must be dug up to expose the shaft down to the point of the leak, where a new cap must be installed.

Tamminen says it could cost up to $100,000 to cap the well. State officials disagree that it will cost that much.

At one time, Councilman Bowler said, hundreds of oil wells were drilled in Hermosa Beach, but they began closing down in the 1950s. The councilman says this is the first time well leakage he knows of.

The leak apparently began more than a month ago, and may have been caused by early rains raising the water table and pushing the oil toward the surface.

A berm was built around the base of the rig to contain the leaking oil in a small pond, Tamminen said, but heavy rains could easily make the pond overflow.

Tamminen, who lives on a boat in the bay and zealously patrols the land looking for probable points of pollution, succeeded in persuading the City Council that the well presents at least one kind of danger.

The city quickly made plans to erect a fence around the lot after Tamminen explained how oil collects at the base of the rig. It gets up to three feet deep, enough to drown a curious child, he said.

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