HUNTINGTON BEACH — Fire officials this week have shut down 10 downtown oil wells operated by South Coast Oil Corp., following a Jan. 8 fire caused by an apparent illegal gas line running from one of the wells, authorities said.
There are 41 oil wells in the downtown area--all but 10 operating in compliance with city code--and about 600 wells citywide, including offshore oil platforms, they said. Most were set up in the 1950s.
Fire Chief Michael Dolder said the department would recommend that the city attorney bring criminal charges against the shut wells' operator, Stephen T. Harris.
Harris could not be reached for comment Thursday.
"There wasn't an explosion risk," Dolder said, "but there were health and safety concerns, so we shut them down."
Lee Caldwell, the department's oil field inspector, said that the city has given South Coast Oil repeated warnings to correct a variety of violations at its wells. Among those were problems with maintenance, fencing, safety guards, equipment condition and other potential hazards, he said.
Inspections "found that indeed he had not complied with our notices of violation, which we had kept reminding him about," Dolder said.
"We feel they're major safety hazards and have the potential to get someone hurt--if not killed--so we ordered them shut down," Caldwell said.
Caldwell said that violation letters were sent to South Coast Oil in 1993 and 1994 and that reinspection of the well sites showed corrections had not been made.
"We think this is a very serious situation. That's why we've taken the action we have," he said.
Dolder said that "one bad oil operator shouldn't reflect on the operations of other oil wells that are good neighbors and (operators) take their neighbors' concerns to heart."
Public pressure mounted earlier this week when a number of downtown residents told a City Council meeting of their concern that wells near their homes may pose a safety threat.
Downtown resident Chuck Bollman, who has an oil well in his back yard operated by South Coast Oil, demanded this week that city officials shut all wells operated by the company.
The fire that broke out nearly two weeks ago was caused by a gas line that apparently was improperly connected to the well in Bollman's yard. The fire was a signal that something had to be done, he said.
Authorities said South Coast Oil ran a hose from the well, which normally vents its natural gas into the air, to a domestic gas supply line in an effort to run a heater at the oil well without paying a utility for natural gas. The domestic line, however, also supplied natural gas to nearby duplexes. A buildup of gas in the line caused the fire. There were no injuries in the early morning fire Jan. 8. But resident Rel Vrooman, who lives in the duplex next to the well site, said the incident rattled him.
"The potential for disaster is here. . . . It's gotten to the point it's dangerous. Maybe it takes somebody getting killed," he said, before city officials take aggressive action.
Bollman also charged that the city has failed to enforce its own codes.
But Caldwell defended the city's inspections of well sites, saying that annual inspections are performed and complaints are followed up.
City Councilman Ralph Bauer said he will ask Mayor Victor Leipzig today to form a committee of residents, well operators and city officials to "take a harder look" at the oil well operations downtown.
"I'm not sure pumping oil in a high-density neighborhood is a good thing," Bauer said.
"Our objective is the safety and welfare of citizens, so we have to move fairly quickly," he said of forming the committee. He described the fire at the well in Bollman's yard as "a wake-up call."
Bauer said the committee would address issues, such as code enforcement and how the city and state can help financially to remove wells that are adjacent to homes.
"I have visions of a well catching on fire and putting homes on fire," he said. "We have to be proactive in terms of (the operation) of oil wells in residential neighborhoods to make sure they don't result in the loss of life and limb."