The South L.A. street is mostly empty. Neighbors have gone to work. Students who attend nearby University of Southern California have left for class. In the middle of the block, a metal derrick towers 50 feet over the nearest house, shadowed against a nearly white spring sky. The sleepy morning silence is shattered by a truck delivering toxic chemicals behind the ivy-covered walls of this oil-drilling operation on Jefferson Boulevard.
From her apartment across the street, Corissa Pacillas-Smith peers through a window that gives a clear view of the property currently covered with drilling rigs, trucks and workers. “There’s usually work going on [this time of year]… There are strong odors… that give me headaches and they’re really obviously inhibiting to my lifestyle and having a comfortable home,” she says. The strong smell of diesel fumes mixed with the stench of rotten eggs fills the small apartment. A burning candle in the background tries to mask the smells, while classical music competes with the sound of metal pipes being driven into the ground.
“On every level, basically, nothing [is] working in favor of the neighborhood,” says Niki Wong, a community organizer with Redeemer Community Partnership, the non-profit that has led the fight against drilling in the neighborhood. “I feel very strongly that it’s not fair that this community has to bear a disproportionate burden of living next to this drilling site.”
Nearly 300,000 pounds of chemicals are known to have been trucked here over the past three years to be used in acidization processes, one of the most toxic oil extraction methods used today, South Coast Air Quality Management District records show. And this number does not include chemicals used in regular maintenance work on the site that is not required to be reported to the AQMD. The reported chemicals include corrosion inhibitors, well stimulants and solvents. Chemical-laden trucks can park less than 20 feet from residents’ bedroom windows without giving neighbors any notice.
“Most people have no idea. In fact, this is beyond what people can imagine — that a tanker truck with 5,000 pounds of toxic acid, air toxins, carcinogens, [and] endocrine disruptors can park outside a bedroom window and not tell a neighbor,” says Richard Parks, president of Redeemer Community Partnership. “It’s unconscionable, but for many people it’s unimaginable.”
The non-profit considers the very existence of an oil site in the middle of their residential neighborhood to be a moral failure on the part of the agencies that allowed this site to exist in the first place. Established in 1965, it is one of 70 oil-drilling sites across Los Angeles. Public outrage at their existence prompted city officials to announce in February that they would fill the vacant petroleum administrator position to oversee them.
Some residents have shaped their life around the drill site, choosing not to move out to escape the toxic fumes, but to remain to give voice to this long-ignored neighborhood where some accepted their “bad luck” of living near the drilling operation. Instead of coming to their rescue, public agencies make it harder to protect their neighborhood. An AQMD amendment to rule 1148.2, allows companies to shield from public view the trade names of some chemical mixtures. Representatives for the AQMD argue that the amendment has decreased the number of trade secret claims made by companies, which therefore increases the transparency of the work done on these sites.
But for the community organizers with Redeemer Community Partnership, this makes the already-dense chemical reports harder to understand, which in turn makes it difficult to determine the health and safety risks posed by the chemicals trucked through their neighborhood. The company who runs the site, Freeport-McMoran Oil & Gas, has been unresponsive to their concerns and to our questions about the site.
Late one afternoon, as work continues on at the site, parents walk their children home on the same driveways that trucks bearing these chemicals crossed earlier that day, now hidden behind brick walls.
This is the Jefferson drill site, home to 36 of Los Angeles’ over 1,000 oil wells. This is the reality of neighborhood drilling.
THE JEFFERSON DRILL SITE
“One of the things some people will ask is why would they allow neighborhoods to be built around a drilling site?” says Wong. “Well, it’s not true. The drilling site was built into the neighborhood.”
The Jefferson drill site, established in 1965, was part of the renaissance of the oil industry in the city during the 1960s. City records show that the plots where the site now stands originally held about 12 homes that were knocked down and the site was enclosed behind a brick retaining wall.
In light of this, city records show the zoning coordinator originally ordered drilling operations to be carefully monitored to protect the community. It was also recommended that the rig be enclosed to protect residents from noise. Such measures would have been the responsibility of the site owner to put into place. Today, the wall around the site is about 15 feet high.
The South Los Angeles neighborhood of Adams-Normandie, where the site is located, is densely populated, with almost 22,000 residents per square mile. According to the Los Angeles Times census data, most are immigrants from Central America and have low-levels of education.
“The neighborhood is quite transient, especially the area [directly] around the drill site,” says Wong. “I wonder if [that is] in part because of the nuisance that the drill site brings.” City documents show that a transient population was expected around the site, and this was used to justify fewer restrictions at the site. Two homes directly north of the site were originally supposed to remain vacant, but maintained by the oil site owner, and serve as buffers to protect neighbors from being too close to the fumes and noise.
But in 1999, the oil company that owned the site, Nuevo Energy Company, received city permission to sell the buffer properties. City records show the plan was to rent the properties to students at the University of Southern California. They would still, however, be considered buffer properties, essentially turning the residents living in those homes into human buffers for the rest of the neighborhood.
“The properties were meant to protect residents from the site, but instead, they brought residents closer to the site,” Wong pointed out. Students would be in the property for about a year before moving on, effectively guaranteeing that no resident would live there long enough to challenge or complain about the site’s existence next to their residence.
Not that they would have legally been able to anyway. The deed from the sale of the Van Buren Street buffer property reads, “Buyer shall acknowledge and agree that the operations of Seller or its successors or assigns may emit noxious odors and fumes, and may cause vibration, loud and continuous noise, safety hazards, unsightliness and/or extensive truck traffic. None of the foregoing matters, or any other operations of Seller or its successors or assigns on and in the Jefferson Street Drill site, shall constitute any nuisance to or for Buyer or its successors, assigns or tenants.” So no residents in the homes most susceptible to the pollution and nuisances of the site are even allowed to complain about the noise, the smells, or the inconveniences that come from living near an oil production site.
Today, the properties feature large burgundy and yellow signs to entice USC students to live in houses once deemed unlivable due to their close proximity to the wells and chemicals.
UNDERSTANDING THE RISKS
The risks of oil production are always high – dangerous chemicals are used, and the risk of an accident is always present. But these risks are particularly prevalent in a dense, urban neighborhood.
Neighbors, like Pacillas-Smith, have long complained of headaches and sore throats. The fumes from these chemicals have been known to waft through houses as early as six in the morning.
“And these are just the acute effects that the chemicals coming off the oil [site] cause,” says Dr. James Dahlgren, who has over 40 years of experience treating victims of toxic chemical exposure. He has worked extensively with neighbors and advocacy groups around the Baldwin Hills Oil Field to study the health effects of living near an oil site. Some of the more dangerous health effects, he says, come after increased exposure to airborne toxins. “There’s a constant low-level of exposure of chemicals coming off the [site] which causes an increase in various disease states including cancer,” says Dalhgren.
The processes used at the Jefferson drill site, including acidization, are particularly dangerous because of the extreme extraction techniques used to access the oil left in the Las Cienegas oil reservoir beneath the neighborhood.
Acidization is one of the newer forms of so-called “unconventional methods” of oil extraction that is a more toxic cousin to fracking. It involves using chemical mixtures with higher concentrations of acid than other extraction techniques. The risks that come with unconventional drilling methods are still not well-understood, however, as the techniques have only become widely used over the past 15 years. Under AQMD’s policies, oil companies are required to report when an acidization takes place at a site.
“The problem with those types of wells is that it’s relatively new technology,” said Amanda Starbuck, a researcher with the Center for Effective Government, which recently released a study examining the effects of toxic chemicals used in oil production on communities. “You have a lot of companies that make up their own combinations of ingredients, so there’s been a lot of secrecy as to what they use.”
A 2016 study from the Journal of Toxicological and Environmental Chemistry found that this process is more toxic than fracking, due to higher concentrations of acid used in the chemical mixtures. Companies inject acids into the well to clear debris and make it easier to access remaining oil. But acids that are injected as a liquid will volatize and escape as a gas if exposed to even a small amount of air, says Hollin Kretzmann from the Center for Biological Diversity. The risk of chemicals dispersing into the air and escaping the confines of the well into the ground is relatively high.
Several known chemicals commonly used in acidizations are listed on the California Air Resources Board's Toxic Air Contaminant Identification List, including hydrofluoric and hydrochloric acid. The acidization toxicity study noted that hydrofluoric acid in particular was especially concerning because of its danger to humans when fumes are inhaled. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to serious side effects including eye and nose irritation, severe respiratory damage, nausea, anemia, and throat irritations.
But benzenes are the most dangerous chemicals for neighborhoods, and studies firmly link them to cancer. “There’s no ambiguity about it,” says Dahlgren.
Benzenes, a hydrocarbon found at the Jefferson drill site, have also been found to affect humans even roughly 600 feet away from activity. At its closest point, wells are about 60 feet away from homes at the Jefferson site.
Seven acidizations have been reported to the AQMD at the Jefferson site over the last three years.
During Freeport-McMoran Oil & Gas’ tenure at the Jefferson site, three incidents have been reported at the site, including a large spray of oil onto resident’s cars and houses in 2011. Freeport-McMoran Inc, the parent company which is an international oil, gas and mining company based in Arizona, has a history of health and safety violations across their international operations. Good Jobs First, which records reported violations, has noted at least 71 violations at Freeport-McMoran sites around the world. Problems range from mining accidents to fires at oil facilities. In total, Freeport-McMoran as a whole has been fined almost $8 million since 2010.
Though Freeport-McMoran has claimed in public hearings that their operations are safe, their 2015 SEC report noted their California insurance does not cover all potential risks that come from oil production.
“Our operations in California… are especially susceptible to damage from earthquakes and involve increased risks of personal injury, property damage and marketing interruptions because of the population density of southern California… we are not fully insured against all risks, either because insurance is not available or because of high premium costs.”
Several attempts were made to reach a representative from Freeport-McMoran to clarify this issue, and to respond to neighbors' concerns. After responding to our initial request, the company's media contact failed to respond to several emails, phone calls and a letter which contained questions regarding their work at the Jefferson site.
The incidents at the Jefferson site have, Wong notes, been relatively minor. “But it’s also a sign that it’s only a matter of time,” she says. “I don’t want to wait for a catastrophe to happen for there to be more regulations.” Additionally, Kretzmann and Starbuck cautioned, significant risks come with trucking large amounts of acids through residential neighborhoods. If trucks are involved in an accident en route, or during their storage on site, the results would be magnified due to the population density of the area.
These potential health problems are also exacerbated by of a lack of physical protection of neighbors. The wall surrounding the site is relatively low – roughly 15 feet high, and sounds and fumes spread freely throughout the neighborhood. Dr. Tanja Srebotnjak, professor of sustainable environmental design at Harvey Mudd College and an oil and gas expert, says the proximity of the site to residents is key in regulating the health effects of the chemicals on neighbors.
“Farther is better and some states and municipalities have set distances ranging from about 500 feet from the fence line of the oil and gas site to the nearest susceptible receptor… And that [required distance] ranges up to 1500 feet, 2000 feet,” says Srebotnjak. But at its closest point, wells at the Jefferson site are less than 60 feet from homes. There are few physical protections in place to protect neighbors from sounds, smells and chemical exposure.
“It is a scary thought that the workers at the oil drilling site wear full-body suits and masks when they’re working at the drill site, yet our neighbors who live in close proximity to the site – some even have windows that overlook the drill site – have no protection or warning that precautions should be taken,” says Lisa Placenti, a South Los Angeles resident who has taken part in protests at the site.
“These are industrial-grade chemicals that are coming into a residential neighborhood, two blocks from an elementary school. There’s a daycare a couple houses down [from here]. It’s unacceptable and completely incompatible to have a site like this exist,” says Wong.
Despite the clear evidence from recent studies that suggests the risks of acidizations can cause devastating effects to the health and safety of communities, there is a lack of understanding of the long-term effects of these chemicals on public health.
This knowledge gap, Kretzmann argues, stems from loopholes in the state of California’s reporting requirements. Information about acidization, as well as other extraction and injection techniques, is self-reported by oil companies to the AQMD and the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) by oil companies.
As a study from the California Council on Science and Technology noted, self-reporting from oil companies decreases transparency and limits agencies’ abilities to validate the information provided. In 2013, the AQMD passed legislation that gave the public access to limited information regarding oil production sites in the Los Angeles area. This regulation, known as rule 1148.2, required companies to self-report the chemicals used in acidizing, gravel packing, or hydraulic fracturing operations.
“It was very helpful for us, because we could look and see, “Oh, these are the air toxins that are being used and how many thousands of pounds are being pumped underneath the neighborhood,” says Parks. “So what is the impact that these are having on a dense urban neighborhood?”
Under AQMD policy however, which is consistent with the requirements of state law, companies could withhold certain information from the reports if the chemical mixtures were trade secrets. The information gave the public access to at least some important data and allowed residents to seek out information in a more transparent manner.
State legislation mandating the reporting of injection wells, which are also used at the site, went into effect in January 2015, and DOGGR has additional legislation on the reporting of acidization and other serious well work. But the reporting rules differed between DOGGR and AQMD, from the type of activities that were reported to the information that must be included.
The new amendment to 1148.2, which went into effect in January, allowed for the disassociation of the trade name product from the chemical ingredients. Companies are also no longer required to report the total mass concentration of a mixture. The AQMD will also post “substitute information” on the publicly available reports when oil companies claim trade secrets.
Susan Nakamura, AQMD director of Strategic Initiatives says that the recent changes to their reporting structures helped to ensure that they were consistent with DOGGR, and says they expect the changes to increase transparency regarding the chemicals used at sites. She also noted it has cut back on the number of trade secret claims.
But for public health and environmental activists, even the fact that trade secrets are allowable under state law is seen as a failure to protect the public.
“Public health and safety concerns can and should trump claims for trade secrecy,” Kretzman says. “This is a completely unnecessary giveaway to oil companies and leaves the public in the dark while dangerous activities are occurring in their neighborhoods.”
While the AQMD may have more information about what is going on the site, Parks and Wong says it has become even more difficult for the public to determine the potential health effects of the chemicals used there. The structure of the publicly released chemical reports has changed to a format that Parks and Wong says makes it difficult to interpret the actual effects of the chemicals that are self-reported by the company.
For Parks, this makes his efforts to protect the neighborhood that much harder because the new AQMD reports obscure most of the chemical information. “Now there’s much of that that we cannot see,” he says. But Nakamura pointed out that the AQMD now has a clearer picture of the chemicals being used on the site, and that the public has access to basic information. This, the AQMD hopes, will lead to a better understanding of what is going on in neighborhoods.
Additionally, they maintain that their regulations and inspections when complaints are made ensure that neighbors are safe. But Kretzmann argues that simply understanding the risks is not enough. “State and local governments haven’t put public safety in their priority. It should be illegal to expose communities to this kind of risk, and yet we allow this and it is inexcusable.”
TAKING MATTERS INTO THEIR OWN HANDS
For years, most neighbors had no idea about the risks they faced. Parks and Redeemer Community Partnership knew the site existed but focused their efforts on increasing the literacy of children in the neighborhood. In 2013, Parks, a longtime resident of the neighborhood, received a notice from the Los Angeles Department of Planning about a public hearing scheduled for the middle of an afternoon. “It was just ambiguous enough to arouse our suspicion,” says Parks. On a whim, he went, and discovered that Freeport-McMoran Oil & Gas, the current operator, wanted to drill three more wells at the site. The permit was not granted due to lack of public notice, but the experience became a catalyst for change.
Since that day, Parks and his colleagues at Redeemer Community Partnership have organized neighbors and led a steady campaign to fight for more protections in their neighborhood. They have recruited neighbors to testify at public hearings, organized protests, created a community hotline to report problems on the site, and are currently collecting health information to determine the health effects of the site.
Perched on a wall overlooking the site while giving me a tour, Parks points to a large metal contraption about 10 feet from the buffer property’s bedroom windows. “This big tank that’s probably 10 feet from bedroom windows is a glycol re-boiler. Glycol is a mildly toxic chemical that’s used to separate water and oil. But it’s located just outside resident’s windows.” A few minutes later, a USC graduate student who lives in one of the formerly un-inhabited buffer properties stops to talk to Parks. She complained of the loud sounds that were a constant while near the site. “It's noisy... They start from at least 8 a.m. I was so surprised [that this site existed] when I got here.” Residents of the buffer properties cannot submit formal complaints of the nuisance because of the deed signed when the properties were sold.
Despite the site’s close proximity to neighbors, Pacillas-Smith, Wong and Parks have found that many people are still unaware of what is happening behind the walls of the site. Parks and Wong have gone door to door to ensure that every resident understands what is happening in their neighborhood. They’ve organized three protests to raise media attention and alert the public to the plight of their neighbors. Last August, elementary school students from Redeemer Community Partnership’s summer enrichment program marched to the site wearing bright yellow shirts to protest the acid being used in their neighborhood.
At a protest last November, community members gathered to report the fumes that were filling the streets as a result of an acidization job that was happening on the site. As they called the AQMD to register their complaints, protesters in bright yellow shirts held signs that read, “Stop dropping acid under our homes.” One cyclist passing by encouraged the group, yelling, “You’re fighting the good fight!” The protest, as Parks noted, has educational value for the community. Neighbors learned how to call in a complaint to the AQMD. But as Pacillas-Smith noted, their complaints often go unnoticed. The AQMD has up to 24-hours to send an inspector to the site. “That’s not really helpful if the problem is happening right now,” says neighbor Richard Olivarez.
By the time the inspector arrives, “the smell has usually disappeared,” says Pacillas-Smith. “There’s no real way to capture the experience in real time.”
AQMD reports on complaints show that to be true – in several of the documents, inspectors note that they were unable to smell a problem when they visited hours after the call. Neighbors also must be present at the site when the inspector arrives to have the complaint officially recorded; a difficult task for a neighborhood of working-class people with little indication of when the inspector will arrive.
Nakamura confirmed that there is no consistent air monitoring at the site but noted that inspections take place when complaints are filed. However, an inspector must verify the odor or identify the source of the complaint with at least six neighbors for a notice of violation to be issued.
In November, by the time an inspector arrived on the site a few hours later, an AQMD representative confirmed that he found no sign of the odor despite over ten calls of complaints, just as Pacillas-Smith feared. No notice of violation was given.
Community involvement in this issue has gone beyond protests. Pacillas-Smith and her husband, Nathan Smith, have lived in the neighborhood around the site for almost a decade, but decided to move directly across the street from the site for the express purposes of monitoring activity on the site.
That decision was not lightly made. “We counted the costs before moving here because it is very inconvenient and disruptive to daily life to live across the street from a site where they’re drilling for oil… That was about two years ago, so we could help really see what’s going on and advocate from a first hand perspective and experience,” she says. The smells, noise and frequent dust have been difficult to deal with. Pacillas-Smith worries that she and her husband will not be able to stay in their home, particularly if they would like to have children.
“The chemicals that they definitely use and report using have potential impacts or are known to have real impacts on women who are pregnant, unborn children and that’s a big concern for me because my husband and I would like to start a family and have children, she says. “But I’m not sure I want my body to be exposed to chemicals that could possibly harm my child.”
For those leading the fight, like Wong, the process can be difficult. “I can easily feel very upset and disappointed with how mistreated this community has been. It feels very obvious to me as being unjust. On every level, nothing was working in favor of the community.”
The residents and activists cling to the hope that the city is hearing their concerns and that change will come.
Last November, Communities for a Better Environment, the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity sued the city on the heels of an audit that revealed that since 2007, most Los Angeles oil sites, including the Jefferson drill site, had not been subject to an environmental review process to evaluate the potential health effects on people and neighborhoods. Youth from the Jefferson area signed onto the lawsuit.
Los Angeles residents are increasingly aware of the oil sites scattered around the city, and have begun to register their concerns. In early February, the city announced it would begin a search for a full-time petroleum administrator to oversee the city’s oil sites. “This is something that we don’t have, something that we used to have, and something that, to me, is obvious that we need to have again,” City Council President Herb Wesson said during a news conference, the Los Angeles Times reported.
The outcome of the lawsuit and the installation of a petroleum administrator have yet to be determined. But residents are hopeful for a different future for the Jefferson neighborhood.
City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson represents the area around the Jefferson drill site and spoke out against the sites in South Los Angeles during his 2015 election campaign. “I’m opposed to oil drilling that threatens the health and safety of residents,” he said in a statement when asked to comment for this story. "The city has a responsibility to use its land use authority to investigate, mitigate and eliminate any negative impacts coming from this site and I support neighbors who are active in protecting residents’ safety and welfare.” Harris-Dawson has met with residents to hear their complaints and neighbors hope that change will come as the city realizes the reality of their living situation.
For residents, the decisions made around the Jefferson drill site are moral ones. When asked what she would like to tell Freeport-McMoran Oil & Gas about her experience living near the site, Pacillas-Smith thought for a moment, then said firmly, “We’re sick of the pollution and the dust and the grime from from all of the machinery that you’re using. We’re sick of the terrible odors that emanate from the site and give me headaches. We’re sick of the loud noises that rumble the grounds of our apartments and make us feel unsafe and unable to focus and unable to live comfortably. It’s a huge nuisance and it’s debilitating to the way we’re living. So consider us, consider the neighbors, the human beings that you’re affecting negatively. This isn’t fair. This isn’t okay.”
Header photo courtesy of Redeemer Community Partnership