Oil drilling in Los Angeles has been woven into the fabric of the city for decades. Thousands of active wells pepper the landscape, providing jobs and sustaining LA's autos and industry. There is a price for being oil-rich though, and it appears that the ones who pay the steepest are LA's most vulnerable citizens. The Liberty Hill Foundation has just compiled a report (via LA Daily News) on the state of oil drilling in low-income Los Angeles neighborhoods. It paints a bleak picture of life living next door to an oil well.
Drilling for oil is nasty business—it's a bit of a wonder it's even allowed in an urban setting. For every barrel of crude oil extracted, between 280 and 400 gallons of contaminated waste water is produced. That water, called "flowback" is loaded with heavy metals and chemical additives. Then there's the atmospheric dangers of oil extraction—air pollutant byproducts from a standard oil well include benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes, whatever those are. It should be noted that a recent scientific study stated that there was "no safe level of exposure" to benzene.
And no one seems to be in charge of making sure the wells are as safe as something so toxic can possibly be. In October, the regulatory agency that oversees California's oil industry found that drilling sites were inconsistently monitored and regulated. An internal audit by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources found that 78 percent of oil projects around LA were not subject to their mandatory annual review, dating all the way back to 2007. That profound lack of performance reviews would be notable for an office temp, let alone an oil extraction site working with high levels of carcinogens.
So there's a dangerous industrial process going on with limited oversight. That should be bad enough. But now let's add the human element: many of these oil wells are right smack in the middle of residential neighborhoods. In fact, the report from Liberty Hill found that "one quarter of active wells in the city are located on residentially zoned land" and 70 percent of wells in LA are located within a 1,500-foot buffer distance from residences or "sensitive area." That's 253 wells on residential land and 759 oil wells within sight of a home, school, or childcare facility.
What's worse is the profile of neighborhoods with large amounts of oil production—they tend to be high-density, low-income, and home to a high percentage of vulnerable residents (children and elderly). The study focuses on four South LA neighborhoods: University Park, West Adams, Wilmington, and Baldwin Hills. All four, when compared to the city average, suffer more poverty, are home to more minorities, and, with the exception of Baldwin Hills, have a significantly higher population density.
The Liberty Hill report contains several first person accounts from people living next door to active oil wells and they all feature similar themes: sudden unexplained illnesses, pollutants in the air, and a lack of ability to penetrate the bureaucracy of their oil regulators in order to complain.
In 2010, Monic Uriarte and her family noticed a new odor in the air that was making them nauseated. To escape the odor, Uriate and all four of her kids began sleeping in one room with an air purifer. When she called the South Coast Air Quality Management District to complain, she was told a complaint would have to be received from six different houses before the odor could be declared a public nuisance worthy of investigation. It wasn't until 2013 that the prodding of Senator Barbara Boxer finally got EPA officials on the scene to investigate. Once there, the EPA investigators themselves were immediately sickened from the fumes and ordered the site shut down. The Uriarte's had lived with the smell for three years.
Richard Parks, a West Adams resident, lives near the Jefferson drill site. The people of West Adams became wary of the oil well when one day they found a thin film of oil covering their cars and homes. The oil company dismissed it a just "a misting." Even more ominously, Parks learned that "91,000 pounds of toxic chemicals including corrosive acids had been pumped under residents' homes in July 2014." When the oil company wanted to dramatically increase production at the well, Parks was able to secure a meeting with an executive to express the neighborhood's displeasure with the decision. He was told by the executive, "Look, this isn't exactly Laguna."
But just this month, a coalition of youth organizations has taken a dramatic step against the unregulated power of Los Angeles oil companies, filing a lawsuit against Los Angeles that alleges the city has exposed "black and Latino residents to disproportionate health and safety risks" and imposed "less-protective rules in their neighborhoods" than they would in more affluent areas. The suit alleges that Los Angeles has exposed "black and Latino residents to disproportionate health and safety risks."
· Report questions oil drilling's effects on LA's poorer neighborhoods [LA Daily News]
· Drilling Down [Liberty Hill Report]
· Los Angeles Sued Over Racially Discriminatory Oil Drilling Permitting [Press release]
· Los Angeles's Urban Oil Wells Are Terrifyingly Under-Monitored [Curbed LA]
· Mapping All 3,000 of Los Angeles's Active Oil Wells [Curbed LA]