Community Groups Clash With LA Officials Over Oil Well Buffer Zones

Students walk by the gates of the AllenCo Energy drill site in South Los Angeles. (Photo by NATHAN SOLIS/Courthouse News Service)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – A report released Wednesday recommends that Los Angeles establish buffer zones between communities and oil and gas wells, but community residents say the proposed distance would still expose residents to harmful toxins.

More than 10 million LA County residents live near 5,300 active and inactive oil and gas wells, according to a 2018 county report.

In LA – home to the largest urban field in the U.S. – 230,000 people live within 2,500 feet of an active well.

In 2017, the Los Angeles City Council directed the city’s petroleum administrator Uduak-Joe Ntuk to conduct a study on the health impacts of operating neighborhood-based oil and gas wells.

Ntuk’s long-awaited report recommends that the city install a 600-foot buffer zone between communities and existing oil wells, drill sites and fuel production facilities.

For future wells, the report recommends a buffer of 1,500 feet and estimates that the cost to the city could reach between $1 billion and $96 billion to defend against property and mineral rights lawsuits.

But community advocates with the Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling Coalition said in a statement Wednesday that the city’s proposed buffer zone is far lower than the coalition’s demand for a citywide 2,500-foot buffer.

Martha Dina Argüello of STAND said the report is “a long-awaited victory for fence line communities,” but added city officials ignored recommendations on healthier buffer distances.

“We refuse to put a price on entire communities that are exposed to toxic oil emissions, and we refuse to sacrifice entire communities by accepting a 600-foot recommendation,” said Argüello, who is also executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility-LA. “Unlike oil companies, we don’t discount the value of human life and community health.”

Argüello said the 2,500-foot buffer is the minimum required to protect community homes, medical centers and schools from harmful pollutants at oil and gas wells, such as benzene and aliphatic hydrocarbons.

The estimated cost to the city for establishing the 600-foot buffer is $720 million in anticipated legal costs, cleanup and land remediation and lost oil production, the 149-page report said.

The litigation costs are so high because the city would have to defend against lawsuits by mineral rights owners of the more than 1.6 billion barrels of oil and gas reserves that are available below the city surface, the report said.

While California has no statewide rule on oil and gas well buffer zones, the report said Los Angeles could create a rule by simply updating city zoning codes.

As part of his bid to implement the city’s Sustainability Plan and Green New Deal, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti should adopt the 2,500-foot buffer as a “core policy,” the coalition said in the statement.

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