By BARRY LANK
ECHO PARK — Two years ago, Roger Majano bought a dead oil well and didn’t know it.
This summer, state regulators are finally having the well, which is between 1,000 to 1,500-feet deep, permanently filled and sealed, along with another idle well across the street. It’s only the latest chapter in L.A.’s 100-year-plus story with oil wells. But perhaps it’s the closing passage in Majano’s long tale of frustration and expense after buying property on a narrow street at the south end of Echo Park.
“I’ve been paying mortgage with no one living there for almost a year,” Majano said.
It was back in 2014 that Majano bought 321-323 Firmin Street – a lot with two little houses, both rentable. Within a couple of months, Majano was on the phone with the city, reporting a rotten-egg smell that could possibly be gas.
At first, he presumed it might have been coming from the house across the street — 324 Firmin, which has a capped, visible, fenced-in oil well in the front yard. After all, if the house across the street from yours already has an oil well, what are the odds yours does too?
Well it turns out, in this neighborhood, the odds are pretty good.
This area in south Echo Park used to be part of the most productive oil field in the state at the time. Near the end of the 19th century, the Los Angeles City Oil Field accounted for more than half the oil produced in California. And while actual production there has now almost completely stopped, petroleum prospectors left behind a dense band of sealed, buried or idle wells from south of Dodger Stadium to around Vermont and 3rd Street.
Just on Firmin Street itself, according to an online map from the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, there are more than a dozen dead wells – all on a modest cul de sac that runs only about 500 feet south of Temple Street.
And indeed, one of the oil wells on that map is under Roger Majano’s property. According to Don Drysdale at the California Department of Conservation, it’s been on the DOGGR’s maps this whole time. The well, named H. Rogalske 10, dates back to a 1903 State Mining Bureau map.
Eventually, Majano began to suspect that the source of the odor was on his own property. For one thing, the capped oil well across the street at 324 didn’t really smell at all. By several accounts throughout the neighborhood, that rotten egg aroma mainly lingered by Majano’s place.
For another thing, an infrared camera showed fumes coming off the concrete by 323, Majano’s front house – and the concrete itself also seemed to be falling apart.
“It became like powdered sugar,” Majano’s father, Roger N. Majano, said.
But state officials can’t do anything about a well until a homeowner shows it’s a source of leakage, Drysdale said.
“There are many potential sources for gaseous odors besides leaking wells,” Drysdale said. “Leaking sewer or gas lines, decaying plants or animals, and naturally occurring hydrocarbon seeps are all possible sources for gaseous odors.”
So last October, Majano busted up the concrete and started digging. He didn’t have to go far. At around 10 o’clock at night – at about a foot deep – he hit a concrete slab. Not knowing what a capped well might look like, Majano thought at first he’d hit a grave.
Instead, according to the Department of Conservation, the slab covered a redwood box, under which gaped a 10-to-12-inch-wide shaft that may go down 1,000 to 1,500 feet. The hole, when examined by The Eastsider, stank like rotten eggs – indicating low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide, according to the DOGGR.
Teresa Schilling of the DOC said the work to permanently seal the wells at 323 and 324 Firmin will start this week, with completion expected in the beginning of August. A web page from the DOC says the cul de sac will be closed to parking for the duration of the project.
Majano said neither the seller nor the title company – First American Title Insurance Company, via a subsidiary – told him about the easement for an oil well at 323. (First American told The Eastsider they would not comment on the details of claims or coverage decisions regarding claims.)
Looking back, Majano said, “I wouldn’t have purchased that property if I knew.”
Barry Lank grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, then went away for a seriously long time. He has worked in TV and radio, and currently helps produce The Final Edition Radio Hour.
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