By Rebecca Koppenhaver
On a recent sunny morning, a small crowd gathered outside the Wilshire Boulevard offices of Liberty Hill to board a bus for a tour of Los Angeles. Unlike most tour buses, this one was not headed to Hollywood, but instead to the urban oil fields of Los Angeles and some of the most polluted communities and neighborhoods that exist among them. On board: a diverse group that included scientists, community activists and Liberty Hill supporters and representatives of other foundations interested in understanding more about living in neighborhoods that also happen to be oil drilling sites.
The tour looked at conventional drilling sites and their impacts, and presentations focused on extreme oil extraction techniques as well.
The bus headed to its first stop in south Los Angeles, the Inglewood Oil Fields. As Angela Johnson Meszaros, General Counsel for Physicians for Social Responsibility explained to passengers, the primary concern is the air pollution that results from both conventional and unconventional methods of oil drilling operations. Chemicals that are often used in drilling such as crystalline silica, methanol and hydrochloric acid are known carcinogens that harm the heart, liver, brain and respiratory and immune systems.
“People who live in communities around these operations are breathing harmful air that is even worse than that in the rest of the city,” she says. Moreover, it was just reported that Los Angeles has the worst air quality in the nation, according the American Lung Association.
And though the South Coast Air Quality Management District monitors the air in and around the city, it does not monitor the air specifically from oil drilling sites.
The history of conventional oil drilling in Los Angeles is almost as old as the city itself. Oil pumps have been a part of the Los Angeles landscape for more than a century. Drilling pumps, sometimes hidden behind high walls or disguised, are everywhere—in public parks, behind shopping malls and in residential areas—and the environmental hazards of this conventional drilling have caused environmental and public health concerns, triggering lawsuits and regulatory actions.
But in recent years, as oil companies expand domestic gas and oil production, and due to the recent signing of SB4 by Governor Jerry Brown (more info on that bill here), there is growing controversy over both conventional and unconventional oil development in California. New and dangerous techniques are on the rise, including fracking, a technique in which water is mixed with sand and chemicals and is injected at high pressure into a well to create small fractures in the earth that stimulates the oil to rise to the surface. Other forms of extreme energy extraction and well stimulation, such as acidization and gravel packing, are also considered very dangerous to human health and the environment.
The Los Angeles City Council voted earlier this month to instruct the City Attorney to draft a citywide ordinance that would prohibit fracking in Los Angeles. The vote is a first step in a longer process that would create a permanent ordinance that would halt all oil drilling that uses hydraulic fracturing until the safety of Los Angeles water supplies are assured, according to the motion. Meantime, activists continue their fight to make oil companies accountable for their effects on surrounding neighborhoods.
While these practices have been happening all over the country in rural areas, L.A. can be distinguished as the only densely populated city where some of these extreme techniques are occurring. Although dozens of dangerous chemicals are used in both conventional oil drilling and fracking, there has been little oversight as to how these practices affect our air and water and human health. Additionally, because California is an earthquake prone region, some scientists believe that fracking deserves intense study before being used in California.
During the Liberty Hill learning tour, Gary Gless, a resident of Culver City and president of the Citizens Coalition for a Safe Community, said that Baldwin Hills and Culver City, the neighborhoods adjacent to the Inglewood Oil Fields, have suffered the ill effects of air pollutants and toxins from the drilling for years. He explained that in addition to the evidence of foul odors that often waft through his neighborhood, independent air monitoring done by his organization has shown high levels of methane throughout the community that includes a nearby elementary school. Gless said that 65 children at the school have to carry emergency inhalers for asthma, many of his adult neighbors are asthmatic and there is a high incidence of cancer in the surrounding neighborhoods. Among the many changes his group would like to see from the oil companies that drill on the sites is strict air quality monitoring around the perimeter of the field.
Paul Ferrazi, also from the Coalition, explained that another major concern of the group is the Newport Inglewood fault that runs directly beneath the Inglewood Oil Field and the potential for extreme extraction techniques to affect seismic activity. He says that many homes in the Windsor Hills area of Inglewood are already experiencing major cracking in the walls of their homes, sidewalks and streets, which some blame on the drill site.
Next stop on the Liberty Hill learning tour was Kenneth Hahn State Park, which is built atop acres of old oil wells in the Inglewood field. Since 1983, the 401 acres has been a welcoming oasis of green, with park benches and jogging trails and scenic lookout points. But it’s hard to ignore the rows and rows of black pump jacks that surround the park. The nearby residential areas of Baldwin Hills are less than a mile to the east, and Culver City, a mile to the west.
As they stood in the shade of one of the park’s pepper trees, Lark Galloway Gilliam, and Malcolm Carson, both from Community Health Councils, told the tour participants that cancer rates in the surrounding communities are some of the highest in the country.
“Although the law recognizes the right of companies to continue oil drilling, there are community standards that need to be met,” said Carson. Among the provisions the CHC is pushing for: better air quality management around the oil field, a land buffer between the park and drilling operations, and independent public health studies on the surrounding communities.
From the park we head to downtown L.A., to the Mercado La Paloma, a community market and gathering place on the site of a former oil field. A colorful, festively decorated space, the Mercado is home to restaurants, vendors, and the community development organization, Esperanza Housing Corporation. Over a tamale lunch, Nancy Ibrahim, Director of Esperanza, described her organization’s experience with oil drilling companies.
“We were the canaries in the coalmine,” she said, “Our community was very badly treated.” Ibrahim described her organization’s fight to have the Allenco Energy Inc. held accountable for the noxious gasses and fumes that come from their drilling operations across the street from a residential building Esperanza owns. She says the problem is that no one agency is responsible as a whole when it comes to all the issues presented by oil drilling in a residential neighborhood, including air pollution as well as possible health hazards, and the impact of noise and traffic.
“There are eight different agencies that handle these complaints and problems. The sites are actually over-regulated—but there is no one place to go to get answers or to get solutions,” said Meszaros.
After lunch, we headed south to the Allen Co. and Jefferson / Budlong oil well sites, both situated in the middle of low income areas near USC. Neighbors of the sites have complained about headaches, nosebleeds and a sickening petroleum smell. Ibrahim believes the system is broken when it comes to obtaining oversight for these facilities.
“As the City Attorney is dealing with Allenco., he is also handing out permits for new facilities. It’s a depraved system,” she said.
The West Adams area, our next stop, is a culturally and socially diverse area of restored stately old homes mixed with blocks and blocks of apartment buildings. Freeport McMoRan Oil & Gas drills for oil behind large metal doors on a tall fenced property that spans about two blocks. Not ten feet from the perimeter of the oil site are the windows of an apartment building whose unfortunate residents have front row seats to the operation.
Richard Parks lives in the neighborhood and is president of the Redeemer Community Partnership that works to keep South L.A. neighborhoods safe and healthy. He says that Freeport has not been a good neighbor. Heavy diesel trucks containing chemicals used for drilling make frequent deliveries to the site and are often left running on the streets and in the driveway. According to Parks, who monitors the activities of the Freeport site, the drilling operation has pumped 24,000 pounds of acid into the ground under the homes of residents since June 2013. He says that many of the areas mature trees are dying and the frequent smell of petroleum is sickening. He says that last year the well erupted and spewed oil all over parked cars and a neighboring house. “My neighbor has an active oil well just 10 feet from his apartment,” said Parks.
Recently, Freeport applied to the city to drill three more oil wells on the site, 24 hours a day, seven days a week for up to two years. Parks says that none of the neighbors were notified as the law requires and Freeport repeatedly asked the city to waive the public hearing regarding their request.
“There is no framework that protects residents that live next to these operations,” says Parks.
Tour participants gathered on the steps of the LA84 Foundation’s grand West Adams manor located directly across the street from Freeport’s Murphy drill site. It’s hard to tell what is going on behind the huge metal gates of the site, which is within walking distance of homes, churches, schools, senior homes and the William Andrews Clark Library. Some neighbors have complained of loud noises, tremors and illnesses, while others have become worried about the debris and ashes that land on their property from the site. A groundskeeper at the library says that he has noticed a large number of cracks have begun to appear in the cement on the library grounds, possibly as a result of the oil extraction.
Joanne Kim, Chief Operating Officer of the Community Coalition, lives with her family fewer than 200 feet away from the Murphy drilling site. She got her start with Community Coalition as one of many grassroots activists in the area who participated in a successful campaign to close or clean up hundreds of liquor stores in the area. She grows her own fruits and vegetables and says she is worried about soil and water quality in addition to air quality. She urges residents to document everything and file reports for violations and disturbances with the Air Quality Management District, which regulates all oil drilling activities in the region.
In 2013, an outpouring of complaints from District 10 residents prompted City Councilman Herb Wesson to seek a temporary suspension of construction of any new oil wells on the site. Workers can be seen going in and out of the facility and there is still plenty of activity, but according to Wesson, drilling has temporarily stopped. Kim and Parks say they will not be satisfied until the operation is permanently shut down. Their goal is to seek a revocation hearing much like in the situation of the clustering of liquor stores in their neighborhood.
The Los Angeles City Council’s proposed moratorium on fracking in Los Angeles may come up for vote as early as the summer of 2014. But such a moratorium would not include new restrictions on either conventional drilling or many other potentially dangerous oil extraction techniques in use in the city, so the struggle for effective oversight, monitoring and regulation will continue.
To learn more about Liberty Hill Foundation’s environmental investments and learning tours, please visit http://www.libertyhill.org/issues/environment , and sign up for our newsletter at https://www.libertyhill.org/newsletter/newsletter-signup.