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Abandoned Echo Park oil wells are to be sealed off for safety

Abandoned Echo Park oil wells are to be sealed off for safety
One of the oil wells in front of a house on Firmin Street in Echo Park. (California Department of Conservation)

Two abandoned oil wells located in the front yards of homes in Echo Park will be permanently sealed after officials learned recently that they were leaking small amounts of natural gas.

State and city officials announced Wednesday that the wells – dubbed orphan wells because there are no responsible operators – would be sealed in a process that will take four to six weeks.

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"The safety of our neighborhoods is my top priority," Mayor Eric Garcetti said in a statement. "These two deserted oil wells must be permanently sealed to protect the residents."

Although the wells pose no immediate danger, they are "very old, near homes, and will continue to deteriorate without intervention," California Department of Conservation and city officials said in a statement.

City and state officials will go door to door in the neighborhood and hold a forum to discuss the work before it begins. Vehicle access and parking in the immediate neighborhood will be restricted during the project.

"We understand the work will inconvenience the community and are working hard to reduce those impacts and get everything finished as quickly as possible," said David Bunn, director of the state Department of Conservation.

The two orphan wells, located on Firmin Street, are part of the Los Angeles City Oil Field, which sparked Southern California's oil boom more than 120 years ago.

When the wells were initially developed, there were no statewide regulations for permanently sealing them once production ended, according to the Department of Conservation. It was common practice to bury such wells and build over them.

One of the wells was covered with a concrete slab and buried long ago, but was dug up more recently by the homeowner. The other is topped by a two-foot steel wellhead and has been classified as orphaned for a decade, according to the department. Both of them are estimated to be 1,000 to 1,500 feet deep.

Testing done on the wells in April showed "negligible readings" for methane and hydrogen sulfide at the surface, according to officials. However, there was a noticeable "rotten egg" smell, which is associated with hydrogen sulfide.

The department's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources issued remediation orders to the last known operators of the wells in 2012 and 2015, but responsible parties could not be located.

State law requires oil well owners to properly seal wells after use, but since 1977, the division has had to plug more than 1,350 orphan wells at a cost of more than $27 million, according to the department.

The division is authorized to spend up to $1 million a year on orphan well remediation, and the department has a proposal in the 2016-17 budget pending to increase funding by an additional $1 million.

Many Los Angeles neighborhoods are built atop former oil fields. The state Conservation Department maintains a website where users can find and check the status of abandoned wells.

"If a resident believes they have an old oil or gas well on their property, they can email us and we can dispatch an engineer to check," Bunn said. "With the limited funding we have to address orphan wells, we prioritize sites that are leaking or are close to residential or environmentally sensitive areas."

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