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After Complaints Fall On Deaf Ears, South L.A. Residents Sue City Over Oil Production

Caitlyn Hynes |
November 10, 2015 | 12:50 p.m. PST

Staff Reporter

Drilling operations occur less than 100 feet form high-density apartment buildings. (Redeemer Community Partnership)
Drilling operations occur less than 100 feet form high-density apartment buildings. (Redeemer Community Partnership)
A few blocks west of the University of Southern California in South Los Angeles, behind ivy-covered walls is the Jefferson oil-drilling site. Though the hedges are trimmed and the grass is green now, the fumes that are produced from the site can kill the plant-life, and leave kids with headaches and nosebleeds. The walls may block neighbors from seeing what goes on behind them, but they know, nonetheless. Now, South Los Angeles youth, tired of living near toxic chemicals with little protection, are joining together with several non-profits to sue the city over what they see a failure to enforce environmental legislation.

The groups involved in the lawsuit are Communities for a Better Environment, the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and the Center for Biological Diversity, held a press conference Friday to announce the case. They argue the city has not only violated regulations from the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing exemptions for environmental impact reports on oil drilling and production sites in South Los Angeles, but that they have also forced residents of color to bear a disproportionate environmental and health burden because of the lack of safety measures around several South Los Angeles sites.

Standing outside City Hall Friday with signs reading, “Our health is not for sale” and “Ain’t no power like the power of youth,” the groups demanded that the city comply with the California Environmental Quality Act and conduct the environmental impact reports and provide better protections from the noise, odors and toxins at the drilling sites. Reports from Al-Jazeera America found that the Jefferson site has never been subjected to an environmental impact report.  

The Jefferson drilling site, owned and operated by Freeport-McMoran Inc., is one of the sites named in a lawsuit brought against the city. It is located in the heart of a South Los Angeles neighborhood, and is only protected by a retaining wall that neighbors say does little to stop the noise and odors of the drilling. Other South L.A. sites face similar problems.

“Our health and our environment are at risk. Community members should not have to jeopardize their health by simply being at home,” said Joshua Navarro at the press conference on Friday.

READ MORE: West Adams Residents Fight Back Against Big Oil

The lawsuit comes on the heels of an October audit, which found that since 2007, Los Angeles has failed to subject several oil sites around the city to an environmental impact report. Without an EIR, it’s impossible to assess the sites’ health and environmental affect on surrounding communities. It is currently unclear why these oversights have continued.

Protests against oil companies and this lawsuit draw the support of youth who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the Jefferson drill site. Many of the kids involved have lived in the neighborhood around the Jefferson drilling site for years. They’ve smelled the chemicals and heard the loud sounds that often accompany drilling.

Jordan Parks, 12, has lived around the site for his entire life. For a long time, he said, they didn’t know exactly what was behind the walls. But when his father discovered it was an oil-drilling site, “Everyone started realizing how incredibly bad it was,” he said.

A report from the National Resources Defense Council found that the chemicals used at oil drilling sites are linked to cancer and other reproductive health problems. Neighbors blame the site for headaches, nosebleeds, and asthma.

Tanja Srebotnjak, a professor at Harvey Mudd College who has worked in oil and gas research for over fifteen years, explained how the closer people live to drilling sites and the chemicals they leak, the more susceptible they are to health complications. “Farther is better and some states and municipalities [like Wyoming]have set distances ranging from 500 feet…up to 1,500 feet, 2,000 feet,” she said.

READ MORE: West Adams Residents Seek To Oust Oil Production

But a 2014 Community Health Councils study found that South L.A. drilling sites, located in neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color, were significantly closer to homes, schools and churches than sites in West L.A. The average distance from homes, schools and churches in South L.A. was 85 feet, while the West L.A. and Wilshire sites, located in primarily white neighborhoods, were about 400 feet away. West L.A. sites also have enclosed structures or geographic barriers, like a golf course, that mitigate noise and odors. The Jefferson site, in contrast, has only a block-wall as physical protection.

Niki Wong of Redeemer Community Partnership, a South L.A. non-profit that works in the neighborhood around the Jefferson drill site, estimated that the wells at the site are a mere 60 feet from homes, a distance that almost certainly exposes residents to the toxins. Without an environmental impact report, it is hard to know exactly how the community would be affected if an accident were to happen on the site.

Drilling operations occur less than 100 feet form high-density apartment buildings. (Redeemer Community Partnership)
Drilling operations occur less than 100 feet form high-density apartment buildings. (Redeemer Community Partnership)
Youth from the neighborhood around the Jefferson site, brought together by school, church and neighborhood tutoring programs, have become more involved in the issue through protests at the drilling site over the past few years.

Richard Parks, Jordan’s father, said that the kids were the ones who wanted to take action. He said the youth wanted to initiate the process, and said, “We really want to bring that lawsuit. This is our community; our families are the ones being impacted by this. Can we be the ones who file this lawsuit against the city?” he said. “[I thought] that was a brilliant idea.”

Elena Hume, 10, has been involved with protests around the drilling site in the past. She said that she and her family would smell the chemicals as they went on walks around their neighborhood. “I never knew it was an oil-drilling site. We’d see the bushes, and the rows of trees, and the big yellow gate,” Hume said. But now she knows what is happening and she feels that it’s wrong to expose her neighborhood to the fumes of the toxic chemicals.

SEE ALSO: Canadian Tar Sands: A Loophole For Big American Oil

“A big reason why it’s being led by youth is that it highlights the discrimination is affecting a vulnerable population,” Wong said, though Redeemer Community Partnership is not a plaintiff in the suit. “It’s important for them [to recognize] the need for a healthy and safe environment to grow up in.”

For the kids around the Jefferson drill site, they just want their neighborhood to be safe for families. “It’d be nice if they just shut [the drilling site] down and turned it into a park or something, or more housing,” said Jordan.

The city attorney’s office told the Los Angeles Times that they will review the lawsuit.

Here's a short video with more information on the Jefferson site specifically:

Reach Staff Reporter Caitlyn Hynes here, and follow him on Twitter here.



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