LOS ANGELES (CN) – Residents from poor black and Latino neighborhoods who sued the city of Los Angeles over policies that placed oil wells close to schools and homes in their neighborhoods argued in court on Friday that they have been swept up into a lawsuit filed by the oil industry, who want to hold them accountable for enacting change within the city’s internal zoning laws.
For years, the city of Los Angeles has rubber-stamped oil-drilling applications without taking time to consider the health and environmental impacts in poor neighborhoods, according to residents who sued in 2015.
City officials and residents reached a settlement agreement because many of the issues brought up in the lawsuit were addressed internally within the city’s department that oversees oil-drilling applications.
According to Maya Golden-Krasner with the Center for Biological Diversity, city officials agreed to conduct more thorough reviews when considering new applications for oil wells and nearby residents would be notified.
“It would give residents a voice in the decision-making process which didn’t exist before,” Golden-Krasner told Courthouse News Service.
But a trade association representing a group of oil companies said the new requirements violated its members’ due process as costs for oil extraction and production would be impacted.
The California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) sought to intervene in the lawsuit, then filed an anti-SLAPP (strategic lawsuit against public participation) lawsuit against the environmental advocates, youth resident groups and the city for what it said was a unilateral negotiation between those parties.
The trial court denied the lawsuit and the trade association appealed while also seeking $700,000 in attorneys’ fees and sanctions.
On Friday, CIPA argued during oral arguments in the Second Appellate District Court that the environmental advocacy groups and the city are entwined in the new regulations and worked together to author a zoning agreement.
CIPA sued the Youth for Environmental Justice, the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity because the new regulations would “radically change how the city would process environmental procedures” that would impact existing oil operations, argued the trade associations’ attorney Nathaniel Johnson with Alston & Bird.
Associate Justice Lamar Baker asked a hypothetical question: Would CIPA have a basis for its claim if the underlying lawsuit between the environmental groups and the city went to trial and the city was found liable to enact changes?
Johnson said CIPA would argue that its motion to intervene was on an element of the process that enacted the new policies and not the settlement itself.
Baker asked, “You have a due process claim that doesn’t arise from the process?”
Johnson said the environmental groups had direct input into a zoning memo that was adopted by the city in 2016 and resulted in the settlement agreement.
“CIPA is seeking that the memo is not enforceable to them,” said Johnson.
Advocacy groups like STAND L.A. (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling) see the new regulations as a step toward better accountability, but poor residents are still exposed to various health problems, including respiratory illnesses, bloody noses, rashes, headaches and neurological conditions.
Attorney Katherine Hoff with Communities for a Better Environment, which is part of the STAND L.A. coalition, said up until now the city has had a piecemeal approach to regulation and enforcing oil wells.
“The problem is if you put in more regulations it’s still not enough,” Hoff said. “Bottom line, the city is allowing this to happen. They’re allowing these wells to operate near sensitive use areas, like schools, homes, community centers and churches.”
According to the city, the state agency that oversees drilling and other activities at wells across the state said there were 819 active wells as of March 2018 in Los Angeles.