Oil Drill Sites Make Bad Neighbors

Forgotten to some, and unknown to others, Los Angeles is home to the nation’s largest urban oil field and was producing as much oil as Saudi Arabia in the 1920s.  Oil production in California was first discovered in the 1890s, and for the following 50 years the Los Angeles basin was a world leader, bringing a great amount of wealth to many family names well recognized in LA like Getty and Doheny. But this was before the health risks were known and during an absence of the environmental protection laws we have today. Though the easy-to-access oil reserves have significantly dwindled, presently oil extraction in Los Angeles remains far more pervasive than most realize, with oil and gas infrastructure found throughout the city, often hidden from sight through the use of tall fences and structures disguised to look like windowless office buildings, towers, or well-manicured and landscaped high walls.

Currently there are about 880 active wells throughout the City of Los Angeles, with the vast majority of them within half a mile of homes, schools and places of worship. In The Neighborhood News’ area, there are four oil extraction facilities and two of them are still active. 

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The Murphy Drill Site operates immediately to the east of an AIDS hospice facility, and to its west is a Section 8 apartment complex. Within one-half mile of the site, there are five large convalescent facilities housing hundreds of older adults, as well as four schools and an early childcare facility.  These facilities are located in a residential community with a population density of over 16,000 people per square mile. Because the Murphy Drill Site is also a processing facility, the risk of harmful emissions and air pollution is coupled with a risk of catastrophic explosion. The operators of the facility in 2015 attempted to install a flare that would burn excess natural gas just a few feet from bedroom windows, but their efforts were thwarted by aggressive community activism and help from City Council President Wesson. 

With a productive oil field located directly beneath a sprawling urban metropolis  and with 325,000 Angelenos living within a half-mile of an active oil well, LA is one of the most potentially hazardous oil drilling environments in the world. As the supply of easily accessible fossil fuel in Los Angeles declines, drillers are using increasingly extreme and dangerous methods to extract oil such as acidization and gravel packing, processes which involve bringing thousands of gallons and pounds of toxic, hazardous chemicals into residential neighborhoods. 

A recent report by the Center for Biological Diversity outlines the top 12 chemicals used in oil and gas extraction.  The report states, “The top 12 air toxins used in Los Angeles oil drilling all have known health risks — ranging from short-term sensory irritation to long-term threats such as cancer. Research has documented specific examples of adverse health threats resulting from proximity to oil and gas operations.” Chemicals like hydrochloric and hydrofluoric acid are highly toxic and corrosive. Silica sand is a known carcinogen. Many of the chemical ingredients used are endocrine disrupting chemicals, which disrupt and harm hormone regulation and reproductive system health. Existing regulations and standards do not consider the safe levels of exposure for residents who are potentially exposed to these substances on a 24/7 basis, or even children, who have smaller bodies and higher respiratory rates. 

A recently published study on community health impacts from oil and gas facilities in South LA found that there was a higher rate of asthma and asthma-related hospitalizations within 1,500 feet of urban drilling sites compared to Service Planning Area and County averages.   The Center for Environmental Health also published a study that found a link between common oil and gas pollutants and significant neurodevelopmental health problems in infants, children and young adults.  In addition to these persistent health impacts, Angelenos living near drill sites must also live with the constant threat of catastrophic accidents.  

City Council President Wesson passed a motion in April 2017 calling on the City’s Petroleum Administrator and County Department of Public Health to conduct a study to investigate the health impacts of oil and gas extraction facilities on nearby residents and the feasibility of establishing a setback ordinance for the City.  This report is in its final stages as the Department of Public Health recently released the health study portion. Their report confirms that there are health and safety risks and impacts to residents living adjacent to such facilities.  The report notes that there may not be any safe setback distance from the risk of a fire or explosion and if a site is as close as 300 feet from residences, there may not be any mitigative measures that will adequately protect people. The report calls for a strong public health and precautionary approach and recommended that the County increase its current 300 foot setback between oil and gas facilities and sensitive land uses. 

LA’s woefully outdated zoning code has not been comprehensively updated since the 1960s.  It was inadequate then and continues to be inadequate today in protecting children and families from the inherent dangers of oil extraction in residential areas. As LA re-envisions itself as a sustainable, forward-thinking city, we must address the environmental and community health impacts of oil extraction. One way other cities have sought to protect their residents from oil and gas extraction is enacting setback ordinances to prohibit such activities within a certain distance of homes, schools, places of worship and other sensitive land uses. An environmental justice advocacy coalition,  Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling - Los Angeles (STAND-LA) is proposing that the City of Los Angeles enact a 2,500 foot human health and safety buffer to protect the health and safety of children and families who have already long suffered the negative consequences of urban oil drilling. 

Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling - Los Angeles (STAND-LA) is an environmental justice coalition of community-based organizations advocating for a citywide solution to the issue of oil and gas extraction in residential neighborhoods.  www.stand.la 




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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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