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Photo by Johan VogelOn March 18, an inactive oil well at the Ascon/Nesi Hazardous Waste Dumpsite in Huntington Beach blew a leak and shot a spray of oil 40 feet into the air. Emergency crews closed Magnolia Street and set to work scrubbing toxic sludge off roofs, cars, sidewalks and streets. Although 360 homes were coated with oil, officials claimed the leak posed no long-term health hazards to the public.
The oil well, which belongs to a now-defunct operator called Krik Co., hadn't pumped a single barrel since March 1996. More than six years later, on June 5, 2002, the California Division of Oil & Gas sent the company a formal order to abandon the well, but never got a response. With no one tending the well, oil pressure built steadily until March 18.
"It looks like five years or more that the well was idle," said Rich Baker, a district deputy for the California Division of Oil & Gas.
Baker said his agency receives only $1 million per year to pay for closing and capping California's old wells, a process they call "abandoning."
"We take care of hazardous wells first, the ones already leaking," Baker said. "If we have any money left, we try to abandon idle wells where the operator has gone defunct or isn't responding. We can't get rid of all the wells we want to. A million dollars doesn't go a long way."
The oil leak at Ascon/Nesi should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the history of Huntington Beach's most notorious hazardous waste dumpsite. For decades, such oil companies as Chevron, Texaco and Conaco dumped their oil waste there. After World War II, when real-estate in the city boomed, Ascon Nesi became a dumpsite for concrete and other construction debris. The dumpsite finally shut down for good in 1986.
Since then, a series of landowners have purchased the dumpsite with the hope that they could develop the property with houses and condominiums, which would offset cleanup costs estimated at more than $30 million. One by one, those companies went bankrupt. To speed things up, state officials in 1997 ordered several oil companies—Chevron/Texaco and Conaco/Phillips among them—to pay for dumpsite cleanup.
Last year, after the third unlucky landowner in a row went belly-up, several of those oil companies formed a real estate consortium, Cannery Hamilton Properties LLC, and purchased the dumpsite. Mary Urashima, a Cannery Hamilton spokeswoman, said her company has already spent $650,000 to pay for emergency crews that responded to the leaking oil well.
"We've stepped forward because we have a long-term process ahead of us and it seemed like the responsible thing to do," Urashima said. "It will cost millions of dollars to clean up the dumpsite and we totally understand that the residents have gone through this before—they've been told the dumpsite will be cleaned up and it hasn't been. Now the property is owned by companies with the resources and expertise to clean it up."
Of course, Cannery Hamilton has every incentive to build homes on the dumpsite once it's cleaned up. But there's no guarantee that will ever happen. Urashima said the oil companies paying for the cleanup aren't sure they'll ever earn their money back. It all depends on how much toxic goo is uncovered, and whether cleanup crews find even more problems underground than they expected. "There could be surprises along the way," Urashima said. "There is a lot we still have to find out."
In fact, the first of those surprises just happened. Shortly after the oil leak occurred, the Division of Oil & Gas inspected old maps of Ascon Nesi to see if there were any other oil wells there that needed to be abandoned. They found two idle wells buried underground, including one directly underneath a hazardous waste pit. Baker said one of the wells dated from the 1920s and the other from the 1950s.
"They never produced any oil," Baker said. "But the abandonment requirements were not what they are now. Back then, it was just leaving the hole full of drilling mud. Once we dig up the waste and remove it, we will have to seal those wells with cement plugs." Baker added that the recent oil leak relieved pressure in the oil reservoir at the dumpsite, but that the two other idle wells could eventually leak.
"If these wells are attached to the same reservoir as the well that just blew, they could blow, too," he said. "We need to be conscious of the problem, but not overly alarm everyone, because these are rare events. The pressure is down right now, and it will take a while for the reservoir's pressure to build up again. It might be 20 years, or it might be tomorrow."