Urban Oil Drilling in Los Angeles

  • Posted on 25 November 2019
  • By Monica Embrey
Neighborhood oil drilling is a major public health and environmental crisis in Los Angeles. Across LA county there are over 5,000 active and idle oil wells that are directly next to homes, schools, parks, hospitals, faith institutions, and other sensitive land uses. Over 500,000 people live within half a mile (2,640 feet) of an active oil well. Drilling releases dozens of toxic emissions that cause health issues such as asthma, cancer, and premature death. Continued oil extraction in the LA Basin also damages our local environment and could release climate emissions equivalent to annual emissions from 11 coal plants or 9.6 million cars. 
Inglewood Oil Field
The Inglewood Oil Field, located in Culver City and the Greater Baldwin Hills region, has the densest concentration of wells, making it the largest urban oil field in the country. More than a million people live within five miles of its boundaries. After major toxic releases in 2005 and 2006 forced neighbors of the Inglewood Oil Field from their homes, local community activists organized to demand LA County enact health and safety regulations. In 2008, the safety standards governing the oil field, known as the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District overseen by LA County's Department of Regional Planning, were adopted. 
A Legacy of Spills and Pollution
Since these regulations went into place, there have been hundreds of complaints by neighbors about noxious fumes and multiple toxic oil spills. One year ago on Thanksgiving night, a containment tank spilled in the oil field, releasing a cloud of toxic benzene and exposing residents within 4,100 feet to a known carcinogen that reached almost seven times the EPA legal limit at the oil field fence line. On April 1, 2019, a pipe broke and oil and contaminated water mixture spilled down the hill and into a storm drain, blocking traffic and contaminating the area.
Currently, the regulations allow oil operations to take place just 400 feet from homes and schools, putting families in the predominantly African American community of Baldwin Hills at risk of future spill incidents as well as ongoing air pollution and negative health effects. According to Sierra Club analysis, there are 16 active wells that are even less than 400 feet from homes currently operating at the Inglewood Oil Field. 
Updating LA County's Regulations to Protect Health and safety
The regulations must be reviewed every five years to "determine if the provisions are adequately protecting the health, safety and general welfare of the public." In an initial draft review released in September 2019, LA County failed to meaningfully strengthen the standards and claimed the current standards were adequate. The County ignored calls from local residents to increase the buffer zone around the oil field to 2,500 feet.
Why a 2500-foot Setback?
Numerous scientific studies that have been published in the last few years, make the case for a buffer zone between oil drilling operations and homes, schools, parks, hospitals, faith institutions, and other sensitive land uses. This scientific literature review finds that 2500-feet is the minimum safe distance between oil production and neighboring communities. An LA County Department of Public Health report published in February 2018 also called for expanding minimum setback distances because of the public health and safety risks of oil drilling.
Organizing for Environmental Justice
Sierra Club Dirty Fuels campaign in Los Angeles in deep partnership with the Angeles Chapter's Clean Break Committee launched an intensive organizing drive in response to this rule process. Volunteers and staff went door-to-door in the Great Baldwin Hills region to talk with neighbors about the County's initial draft recommendations. Thousands of residents agreed that the review was woefully inadequate and wrote hand-written comments to demand stronger health and environmental protections, including a 2,500-foot setback. 
At the end of the 60 day comment period, activists from the Sierra Club joined by allies from STAND LA, delivered thousands of letters directly to the decision-makers'  offices. The comments from local residents urge LA County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas to listen to community concerns and direct the LA County Department of Regional Planning to update these proposed safeguards to better address the threats Inglewood Oil Field poses to public health and the environment.
We will continue to closely monitor this and other rule processes to hold our elected and appointed decision-makers accountable for environmental justice. Learn more about our efforts and how to get involved at cleanbreak.info.
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