Source of Ooze Still Unknown

Times Staff Writer

The mystery of this week’s downtown Los Angeles oil field leak deepened Friday -- to about 4,000 feet underground.

That’s where hot, salty water that continues to bubble up from beneath South Olive Street may be coming from, said petroleum experts who spent a fourth day working to clean up the mess, which closed the busy street and forced residents of a 35-unit apartment house out of their homes for nearly three days.

Hazardous materials workers armed with gas-sniffing gauges continued to monitor the hallways and basement of the 99-year-old Iris Apartments and shovel oily mud from the street into plastic bags, as vacuum trucks pumped thousands of gallons of water from beneath the roadway.


But experts remained uncertain where the water was coming from, said officials of the St. James Oil Corp. and the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

St. James operates a pumping facility two blocks from the apartment building that has 12 producing oil wells and two water-injecting wells that slant out for more than a mile in various directions.

On Monday, one of the injecting wells was pumping high-pressure water into the ground to help extract leftover crude oil when hot, oily water began oozing from the street’s pavement and the apartment building’s basement.

The flow immediately slowed after Los Angeles firefighters asked oil workers to halt the water injection, which is done to get rid of groundwater that is pumped up along with oil and to help push subterranean petroleum into reservoirs where it can be extracted. But liquid continued to steadily bubble up through cracks in the street and sidewalk.

Dennis Barrial, foreman of St. James’ drilling site at 1325 S. Broadway, said workers have begun pulling out pipes from the water injection well to hunt for leaks. None have been found, he said.

Barrial said the oozing water -- which was blackish Monday but a dark green Friday -- could be seeping up naturally from a geologic zone about 4,000 feet underground.

But it also could be coming from a long-dormant Chevron well that may have suddenly come back to life after being abandoned 43 years ago. That well -- plugged with concrete and an old telephone pole -- is beneath a parking lot across South Olive from the apartment house, Barrial said.

“We’d like to open the Chevron well and see if the flow is coming from there,” said Rich Baker, district deputy with the Division of Oil and Gas. But the well is under the newly paved parking area, and officials don’t want to dig that up until other sources for the ooze are ruled out.

Baker said St. James had agreed to pay for the cleanup, pending completion of the investigation. If another party is found to be responsible, it would have to assume cleanup costs. If the leak is from a natural cause, the state will cover the cost.

Baker said officials hope to reopen one lane of traffic along South Olive on Monday.

The 130 apartment residents were allowed back in their homes Wednesday afternoon, said Delfina Agustin, whose husband manages the three-story building at 1220 S. Olive St. “There’s still some odor, but I feel safe and all the families are back,” she said.

Next door at Ready Reproductions Inc., a dozen print-shop employees were back at work Friday.

“It was like a yo-yo. ‘You can work. You have to evacuate. You can work. No, you have to evacuate,’ ” said pressman Henri Glazer. “We lost, like, a day and a half of wages.”

Shop owner Gene Reitz said his plant developed cracks in floors and walls from Monday’s incident.

“We have the Fire Department in here two or three times a day checking for methane,” he said. “We’ve had a hazmat team in, the DWP, the Department of Fish and Game.”

The Department of Fish and Game?

“They were worried about seepage to the ocean and the danger to fish,” Reitz said.