LA Neighborhoods Gain Ground in War on Oil Wells

Isabel Alvarenga, left, and Ashley Hernandez, tour the Wilmington neighborhood near a drill site and Little League baseball field. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

LOS ANGELES (CN) – Ashley Hernandez often woke up with a bloody nose as a child. Her parents thought it was heat related, but she also had the same constant headaches and breathing problems as other students at her school in the Los Angeles suburb of Wilmington.

More than a decade later, Hernandez says the culprit was always just down the street from her bedroom: An oil well near a Little League baseball diamond and surrounded by homes.

“Like we say: You live, pray and sleep near oil in Wilmington,” Hernandez, 26, said cynically on a recent tour of the neighborhood just a few miles from the Port of Los Angeles, where oil derricks and storage tanks break up the pattern of homes.

With over 10 million LA County residents living near 5,000 active oil and gas wells, residents are exposed to a variety of chemicals and pollutants. But in a strange twist, a group of residents living near drill sites were sued by the oil industry.

It began when residents sued the city of Los Angeles in 2015, claiming drill permits were issued at a high rate in poor neighborhoods without proper review of impacts to the community. The city’s actions, the residents said, amounted to a form of environmental racism.

The following year, just as the parties reached a settlement, the oil trade group California Independent Petroleum Association (CIPA) that sought to join the lawsuit filed a cross complaint claiming industry interests would be impacted.

An employee walks through the AllenCo Energy drill site in South Los Angeles in early January 2019. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

A youth organizer for the environmental nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment (CBE), Hernandez said residents are being sued because they were able to make real progress over the oil industry’s practices.

“Living in our community is really like living in a ticking time bomb,” she said. “That’s why we’re always telling people you don’t have time to do more studies, we don’t have time to go through these retaliatory lawsuits and cases.”

CIPA declined to be interviewed for this article, but in a statement the trade group’s CEO Rock Zierman said California has some of the strictest environmental rules in the country and is not benefitting from the “energy boom” other parts of the country are experiencing. If left unchecked the state’s demand for energy will be met by “foreign imports” that do not have the state’s best interests in mind, Zierman said.

Communities for a Better Environment and the other environmental groups CIPA filed an anti-SLAPP motion to strike the countersuit, arguing CIPA was targeting them for trying to update the city’s policies. For its part, CIPA moved for $700,000 in attorney fees. A state court judge denied both motions.

On Friday, however, a Second Appellate District panel reversed the lower court’s ruling on the groups’ anti-SLAPP motion to strike, finding CIPA has no chance of prevailing as the nonprofits can’t be considered state actors and the city has the authority to make decisions regarding zoning.

Not in my back yard?

Associate Professor Bhavna Shamasunder with the urban and environmental policy department at Occidental College said oil operations and neighborhoods have developed side by side. Over the years, residents have had to fend for themselves to hold well operators liable under state and federal regulations.

“Many wells have had their permits grandfathered in LA and that predates the big environmental review policies that arrived during the Nixon administration,” Shamasunder said. “They’ve almost escaped all the major regulations from the 1970s.”

Asthma, nose bleeds and headaches are common in poor neighborhoods like Wilmington, Inglewood and South Los Angeles, but data from over a century of oil drilling in the region have not been well documented, said Jill Johnston with the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California.

Residents walk by the AllenCo Energy drill site in South Los Angeles, which has been inactive for nearly five years. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

“Communities will notice changes in health first before the data can become available,” said Johnston. “There is no clear indication why the data has not been tracked over that time.”

Federal standards followed by the oil industry are often based on occupational exposure, Johnston said, applying to an employee’s exposure during the workday rather than residents who live near oil wells.

One constant for many residents living near active oil wells is hydrogen sulfide, which emits a rotten egg odor. The odor can drive people indoors as more like a nuisance, but more serious risks include irritation to the central nervous system and other chemicals used at drilling and fracking sites can impact hormonal and reproductive systems.

The environmental coalition Stand Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND LA), made up of residents and advocacy groups, want buffer zones around oil sites that would remove operations from densely populated urban neighborhoods.

Students walk by the gates of the AllenCo Energy drill site in South Los Angeles. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

A win, maybe

Progress is slow, even in a state that prides itself as a champion of environmental standards and renewable energy.

Starting in 2010, residents in South LA documented over 300 complaints of symptoms they said were caused by noxious fumes from the 21 wells at the AllenCo Energy drill site.

Regulators and state representatives finally visited the site in 2013. During that single visit, the inspectors complained of headaches and sore throats. Rather than wait to be shut down, the drill operators opted to close the site.

The following year, City Attorney Mike Feuer sued AllenCo over its failure to follow regulatory standards. In 2016, an LA County Superior Court judge ordered the company to pay $1.25 million in civil penalties as part of a settlement agreement. In order to reopen, AllenCo had to update the drill site to meet regulatory standards, including the installation of an air quality monitoring system.

A car parked on a residential street near a storage tank in Wilmington, near Los Angeles. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

AllenCo intended to reopen in October 2018, but the city moved for a delay. City officials then ordered a review of the property to see if it can be converted into a park or affordable housing and the following month city officials asked for a review of the property to see if it could be converted into a park or affordable housing – a sign the city could be eyeing a seizure of the property through eminent domain.

AllenCo didn’t respond to a request for comment. It currently leases the site from the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which said in a statement it has no plans to sell the property but also doesn’t have oversight of the drilling operation.

An oil derrick is housed in a parking lot shared by a church and a daycare center in Wilmington, near Los Angeles. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the state Department of Conservation said AllenCo’s reopening is ultimately up to the city attorney.

It’s good news, but residents are cautiously optimistic.

Hugo Garcia with the nonprofit Esperanza Community Housing walked the neighborhood near the drill site on a recent winter morning, reminding residents to attend a community meeting.

Garcia touches base with residents, carrying with him a simple questionnaire: What odors did you smell? Natural gas, rotten eggs, tar, other? Did you feel sick from the smell?

“There is a sense that the operation will restart again and residents will be back to where they were five years ago,” said Garcia.

The drill site was shut down only because residents gathered their own data, but to many the response was a tepid, drawn-out process while residents continued to get sick.

Spanish-speaking residents live side by side with transplants and USC students who cycle out of the neighborhood within a few years. Margarita Madero, 77, recalled when a rotten egg smell would waft into her apartment in the middle of the night.

Margarita Madero, left, lives near the AllenCo Energy drill site and community organizer Hugo Garcia visits her in her South Los Angeles neighborhood. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

“It was ugly and made me feel sick. I couldn’t breathe,” Madero said in Spanish from her neighbor’s front yard.

She motioned above her head. “Sometimes I think I smell it again? I think about that egg (odor) that hangs around and I think, how could they do that to us again?”

In the same neighborhood, Vanessa Vobis and her husband Nate Villaume raise chickens and have a dog. Vobis, who works at the Natural History Museum, said she was only partially aware of the drill site when she moved into the neighborhood almost a decade ago.

“But then about six months after I started to experience respiratory problems and headaches,” said Vobis. “I never really had allergies before I moved here.”

Nate Villaume, left, and Vanessa Vobis, have considered moving if the AllenCo drill site reopens in their neighborhood. (Nathan Solis/CNS)

She and Villaume joined the chorus of voices asking local and federal officials to shut down the site. Nearly five years later they’re uncertain about their future in the neighborhood.

“I want to raise a family here,” said Vobis. “To be honest, it does cross our mind (to move). It frightens us a lot, but I don’t want to. That’s such a privileged thing for me to do, right? My neighbors can’t move. But that activist inside of me wants to stay.”

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