The City of Goleta shut down nine oil and water wells in the Ellwood Mesa area last week as part of the Ellwood Mesa Well Abandonment Project.
The restoration includes replacing three oil wells, five water wells and a groundwater monitoring well with native grass and wetlands on the Sperling Preserve. The project’s first phase — closing the wells — is expected to be completed by July, and the grass and wetland restoration phase will begin in November.
According to Don Drysdale, Goleta Public Affairs Officer for the California Dept. of Preservation, the renovation will eliminate the derelict wells’ potential safety hazards.
“The wells were closed back in the 1930s when standards for closing a well were much less strict,” Drysdale said. “The wells currently pose a safety hazard, so they will be plugged with cement and covered in soil.”
Although the companies responsible for opening the oil wells have been out of business for decades, Drysdale said the city will receive reimbursement for sealing the sites.
“Nearly all of the money needed to close the oil wells has come from a general oil industry fund set aside to remediate orphan wells with no company affiliation,” Drysdale said. “The five other water wells and the groundwater monitoring well will have to be closed by the city.”
State and local regulations require Goleta and the California Coastal Commission to maintain the mesa as an open space habitat, according to Santa Barbara Environmental Defense Center’s Chief Counsel Linda Krop.
Krop said the development aims to reverse the ecological damage caused by the decrepit wells.
“The project will restore the native grasslands and vernal pools which were destroyed during the construction of the wells in the 1930s,” Krop said. “A great amount of damage was caused to the area by these wells. Back then, there were no laws governing the cleanup and abandonment procedures.”
The City of Goleta received ownership of the Elwood property as part of a land swap to save the mesa as a nature preserve.
According to Krop, the project required extensive planning due to the oil wells’ age and location near wildlife and population areas.
“Agencies must be very cautious when they are closing derelict oil wells,” Krop said. “A lot of these old wells were built dangerously close to populated areas. It was a time when the destructive effects of oil spills were largely unknown, and few safety measures were taken to prevent spills.”
Although new regulations have improved oil drilling safety, Krop said there is still a potential for invasive projects to cause irreversible environmental damage.
The restoration’s heavy equipment will create dust and noise between the hours of 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The city predicts a possible increase in traffic along Santa Barbara Shores Drive while workers move equipment along the road.
Drysdale said the city will close off part of the area around the wells and consolidate several public trails so hikers do not disturb the wildlife.