Q&A: The challenge of fixing the Hawthorne methane leak

Portions of Imperial Highway near Truro and Condon avenues in Hawthorne remain closed as crews work to fix an out-of-service well that had spewed methane and water.
Portions of Imperial Highway near Truro and Condon avenues in Hawthorne remain closed as crews work to fix an out-of-service well that had spewed methane and water.

Thirty-seven Hawthorne families will likely spend a second weekend away from their homes as crews continue work on a retired water well that had spewed methane gas. 

Last Thursday, as crews were conducting a routine process of capping the retired well located off of Imperial Highway between Inglewood and Firmona Avenues, they experienced an unexpected outflow of water being being pushed up by methane gas.

Methane is highly flammable and can be explosive in some mixtures with air.  

KPCC interviewed Denise Kruger, Senior Vice President of Regulated Utilities with well owner Golden State Water Company, about efforts to fix the problem. 

Q. Crews worked to plug the well with a gel solution to stop the flow of methane. How did that go?

Kruger: The gel method actually was successful... within a short time frame [workers] were able to stop the flow of water and gas from the well using different methods and the gel solution was one of those methods. What that does is it allows the crews to do the actual construction work in the well itself that needs to be done in order to make it a permanent capping solution. 

 Q. Why is that taking so long?

Kruger: It takes time to figure out the best solution to make it a permanent cap. And so as crews have been working with the temporary solution, they’re designing the best way to make it a more permanent cap and that requires specialized equipment and specialized materials that are being brought in from all over the place. This is a deep water drinking well so it takes time to pour the concrete into the hole and let that concrete cure. 

What’s the next step? 

Kruger: [On Thursday and Friday] crews are fabricating the blowout preventer, installing that and beginning some of the full concrete fill of the well.  There will continue to be a flow of equipment and material on site so unfortunately that will affect traffic a little bit on Imperial Highway.  

Q. What is a blowout preventer?

Kruger: What [the blowout preventer or valve] does is provide a safety net if you will, so that if gas builds up it will not blow out to the atmosphere. It’s heavy. We have a crane on the construction site to ensure that the blowout preventer gets put on properly. 

Q. Is this kind of methane leak common?

Kruger: Methane in the area is naturally occurring but it was very unexpected to have a release of methane in this way while the work was happening with the drinking water well. So it is a very unique situation...a pocket of methane gas [may have] wiggled through the out-of-service well, which caused the methane to come to the atmosphere and the water... to shoot up in the air with the gas. It’s not a common thing and our emergency response protocol[s] have been effectively addressing the situation.  

Q. Could fracking in recent years - such as in the Inglewood Oil Field near Baldwin Hills - have caused the leak?  

Kruger: It’s unknown if there could be any connection to other activities such as fracking or oil and gas work that’s been going on in the area for decades. The fire department has made clear that methane is naturally occurring in the area to begin with so I couldn’t comment one way or another if there’s any impact [from] what’s been going on  in the surrounding communities.