The oil in the backyard

A lobelia bush grows in a backyard. Catherine Norby/Lariat

The Los Angeles-Long Beach area in California is ranked No. 1 for high ozone levels, No. 6 for 24-hour particle pollution and No. 4 for annual particle pollution in the United States, according to the American Lung Association. In Los Angeles County alone, there are currently five major active oil refineries. Of those oil wells, 479 are active, 154 are idle and 1,750 are capped. 

Oil drilling is happening right in the backyards of those in the LA and Long Beach areas, and backyards is meant quite literally. Oil companies buy up lots within suburbs and in parking lots, placing drills directly in places where they can cause severe health problems for residents such as nose bleeds, asthma, bronchitis and cancer. As of 2018, 45% of those residents are Hispanic

On Feb. 26, Patagonia released a short documentary titled “District 15,” following the fight of an organization called Communities for a Better Environment, specifically their fight in the community of Wilmington in Los Angeles. In the 23 minute short, viewers are shown a quick peek into the lives of those who are disproportionately affected by oil refineries. 

Since 1978, CBE has been fighting for environmental justice for California communities of color and low income through resident empowerment. Their most recent win was in 2008 within San Francisco Bay where the organization and several of their allies stopped Chevron Corporation from expanding the plant to refining dirtier grades of oil. Currently, they are working alongside Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling L.A. to demand a 2,500 foot buffer between the community and oil drilling. 

CBE’s most recent lawsuit was filed in 2019. On Dec. 19, it was announced that the organization in addition to Environmental Integrity Project and Environmental Advocates would be suing Corteva Plant, Inc Plant in Pittsburg, California, for violating “hazardous waste laws that protect workers and nearby residents,” as was stated in a press release by CBE. The organization demands Corteva follow federal law when it comes to managing their waste. 

Corteva is allegedly breaking federal law by violating the limits on how much and when their hazardous waste can be burned. Additionally, according to the lawsuit, their wastewater treatment system is not operating with the proper hazardous waste permit. 

Fellow organization STAND L.A. reported recent success on Sept. 20 of this year as a long-awaited report was finally released on the effects of urban oil drilling, finding it is recommended that the drilling be phased out. In June 2017, L.A. city council gave the Petroleum Administration a 120-day deadline to conduct a study to analyze the possibility of phasing out oil and gas operations in communities. 

A list of 11 categories were created for the Petroleum Administration to research in their studies. It was recommended in the report that a physical surface set back 600 feet “from sensitive receptors on existing oil and gas wells, associated production facilities, and drill sites,” be created. It also is estimated in the report that this could cost the city $724 million at the very least in “anticipated litigation, lost oil production, well abandonment, environmental remediation and cleanup, and surface land value.” 

This is a significant victory for STAND-L.A. and CBE, as in addition to the 600-foot buffer between oil refineries and communities, a 1,500-foot buffer can be demanded from new oil wells. Over time, active oil wells within 600 feet of communities would be phased out. 

Currently, the motion to make these barriers awaits approval from Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.