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University Park Residents Say 'Enough Is Enough' On Poor Air Quality

Tahsin Hyder |
December 20, 2013 | 12:28 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

SCAQMD Panel, Allenco Town Hall Meeting. Neon Tommy
SCAQMD Panel, Allenco Town Hall Meeting. Neon Tommy
University Park residents lined up inside an auditorium to voice to the South Coast Air Quality Management District their anger and concern over an oil production facility in their neighborhood they claim is making them ill. 

Residents, students and those who work in the area came out to Mt. Saint Mary's College to hear what AQMD analysts had to say about air quality samples taken over the last eight weeks.

"What we have been observing is very, very short-term, but highly elevated levels of hydrocarbon gases," says Philip Fine, assistant deputy executive officer for science & technology. "It could last two to three minutes, it could last 10 minutes, but rarely longer than that. The vast majority of the time the total hydrocarbon gases measured are consistent with basically what you'd expect in this neighborhood or throughout the basin."

Allenco increased its production by 400 percent three years ago, according to the Division of Oil and Gas & Geothermal Resources. Since then, AQMD says it has received upwards of 340 complaints about the oil production facility. Among them are complaints of debilitating fumes and odors, thought to be the cause of headaches, and nosebleeds and nausea experienced by community members. 

"We found that a lot of parents would report that they were finding themselves losing sleep, because they would sit in vigilance next to their sleeping child so that they could shake them awake in the event of a nose bleed," says Nancy Halpern Ibrahim, executive director of Esperanza Community Housing Corporation.

View of Allenco from Esperanza CHC, Neon Tommy
View of Allenco from Esperanza CHC, Neon Tommy
Esperanza is located just across the street from Allenco and is home to many who have filed complaints about odors originating from the field. Monic Uriarte has been a resident of the building and its Community Health Promoter since operations began in 2008. 

"We don't need an oil production facility in this area," says Uriarte. "This is a high-residential area, a high-educational area and this kind of neighbor doesn't match with the rest of the community."

Together with Sen. Barbara Boxer, they have asked Allenco to suspend operations in an effort to protect the community's large population of children. 

On Nov. 22, Allenco notified Boxer they would partake in a voluntary shutdown to ensure community interests received the highest priority while more air samples were taken around their facility. 

Residents, however, felt this was a political move to appease Boxer, especially after four EPA officers were sickened during an inspection weeks earlier. Residents at the town hall meeting showed the most frustration with AQMD.

"It really saddens me that regulatory agencies that are supposed to be professionals, that we're supposed to trust, didn't do their job," says Angelica Romero. 

Aerial View of Allenco, Photo courtesy Google Maps and SCAQMD
Aerial View of Allenco, Photo courtesy Google Maps and SCAQMD
She echoed the same sentiment that many community members share — that the AQMD took far too long to show an interest in how the emissions affected their lives. They feel the AQMD has now only begun to aggressively monitor the area after Boxer's visit to the site and after a few Environmental Protection Agency officers became ill after an inspection. 

Community members have come together over the past several months to create a coalition against any form of oil production in their neighborhood. They call their organization People Not Pozos, which translates to People Not Wells. 

At last week’s Town Hall, they sat together, wearing red and black T-shirts with their organization's name written across the chest and listened to the data presented by AQMD. When the public comment period began the audience, one by one, residents, students and even an attorney came forward to speak. The next hour would be filled with sentiments echoing these:

"You don't have to fall under a certain level to know that you have a health effect. It is a human right to be able to breathe fresh air — health is a human right," says Ashley Kissinger, project manager of Esperanza.

Medicine Monic Uriarte uses daily, Neon Tommy
Medicine Monic Uriarte uses daily, Neon Tommy
"We would have headaches, nausea, stomach pain. I had nosebleeds frequently. I have heart problems. It's hard because of the smell, and we don't have any parks around here," says Nalleli Cobo, a seventh-grader at Saint Vincent's School.

"There doesn't have to be measurable danger every single day for this to be an inappropriate land use for this neighborhood," says Becky Dennison, resident and organizer with the Los Angeles Community Action Network. 

One comment in particular held the AQMD accountable for lapses in their handling of the complaints. 

"We sent you a letter dated October 24. Today is December 11. We made specific requests — we haven't heard anything," Sharon Lowe, Environment Justice Attorney and Special Projects Deputy for Councillman Cedillo. 

Lowe says the letter specifically requested indoor air quality measurements be taken in the homes and within the hallways of local residences during the monitoring of the facility. She also asked for more transparency about what chemicals were emitted and the components of a "masking agent" Allenco used to cover up existing odors. 

Barry Wallerstein apologized and said he should have responded to her calls and that he left her a message earlier that day. He added that indoor air quality samples are tests that they just "don't do."

This is a running theme in the dialogue between University Park residents and the AQMD. While AQMD has no doubt about the connection of their symptoms with the emissions put out by the facility, they insist that the air quality samples do not justify shutting down the facility. 

Allenco has stayed notoriously silent through these several months refusing to speak directly to the media. 

Equipment used by SCAQMD to monitor air quality near Esperanza CHC, Neon Tommy
Equipment used by SCAQMD to monitor air quality near Esperanza CHC, Neon Tommy
At this stage, the situation begs the question of whose burden it is to protect the community. Is it that of the AQMD or are its hands bound by the city and state who determine appropriate land use agreements? The EPA is still conducting its own testing and results are expected to be released early next year. The Department of Health had this to say:

"Not only do I understand that you have these health complaints, I felt them myself," says Dr. Cyrus Rangan, director of the Toxics Epidemiology Program. "We just want to pledge our commitment that we are going to collaborate with all of the agencies involved to ensure we put the public's health first."

Nancy Halpern Ibrahim concluded the evening by pressing the AQMD to use a new standard for determining the rightful use of the two-acre lot. 

"I can't tell you how meaningful it was for me as a health professional to hear from our Department of Public Health that there is now a position that is focused on the community health as the measure of air standards rather than these dissipated emissions," says Halpern Ibrahim.

AQMD Executive Director Barry Wallerstein says the facility will be closed for about another two months while Allenco makes renovations. He has asked residents of University Park to wait to determine if the AQMD has done its job at that time.

Reach Staff Reporter Tahsin Hyder here; Follow her on Twitter here

In-video graphics courtesy of Allenco.



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