Magali Sanchez-Hall, who has lived in Wilmington for over two decades, has struggled with asthma all her life. She says the health problem stems from her proximity to oil and gas wells.
Emma Newburger | CNBC
LOS ANGELES, CALIF. – If you come out of a coffee shop near Interstate 110 in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, a foul smell will instantly hit you.
Magali Sanchez-Hall, 51, who has lived here for more than two decades, is used to the smell of rotting eggs wafting from hundreds of oil wells in the neighborhood. She is used to her neighbors describing chronic coughs, rashes, and diagnoses of cancer, and to the asthma that affects her own family, who lives just 500 meters from a refinery.
“When people develop cancer or have asthma, they might think it’s normal or blame genetics,” she said. “We don’t often look at the environment we are in and think – the chemicals we breathe are the cause.”
Wilmington, a predominantly working-class Latin American immigrant community of more than 50,000 people, has some of the highest rates of asthma and cancer in the state, according to a report by the Nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment. It is surrounded by six oil refineries and surrounded by several highways and the ports of LA and Long Beach.
California, the seventh largest oil-producing state in the United States, has no rules or standards for the removal that active oil wells must have from communities. For many Californians, especially blacks and browns, pungent smells, noise, and dirt from oil production are part of the neighborhood.
When walking around Wilmington, pumpjacks can be seen in public parks, next to schoolyards where children play, and outside the windows of people at home. At night the sky is lit orange by refinery torches.
The discovery of oil in the 1920s resulted in significant population growth in the area. People built and bought houses next to the oil fields and refineries that employ thousands of residents in the area. In LA County, the industry employs around 37,000 people, according to a report by Capitol Matrix Consulting.
Oil tanks are sandwiched between houses in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Emma Newburger | CNBC
According to analysis by the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance, more than 2 million California residents live within 2,500 feet of an operating oil and gas well and another 5 million – 14% of the state’s population – are within 1 mile.
The residents of LA County, where the Inglewood Oil Field is located, are particularly at risk. The 1,000 acre site is one of the largest urban oil fields in the country and is operated by Sentinel Peak Resources. More than half a million people live within a quarter of a mile from active wells that release dangerous air pollutants such as benzene, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter, and formaldehyde.
Sentinel Peak did not respond to requests for comment.
Sanchez-Hall didn’t understand the connection between the nearby refineries and the health problems in her community until she left. She graduated from college and got a masters degree from UCLA, taking courses in environmental law, and now advocates cleaner air and energy in her neighborhood.
“Wilmington is Ground Zero for pollution,” said Sanchez-Hall. “Now I understand why the people around me were dying of cancer. We’re not throw-away people. There’s one major downside because a lot of us don’t know what is happening.”
No buffer zone between drilling and people
Research shows that people who live near oil and gas wells are exposed to harmful pollution and are at higher risk for premature births, asthma, respiratory diseases and cancer.
Staying near oil wells has been linked to decreased lung function and wheezing, and in some cases respiratory damage can rival that of daily exposure to secondhand smoke or living on a highway, according to a study recently published in the journal Environmental Research.
Another study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives analyzed nearly 3 million births in California from women who lived within 6 miles of at least one oil or gas well. The authors concluded that living near these wells during pregnancy increased the risk of low birth weight babies.
Environmental protection groups have urged California Governor Gavin Newsom to establish a 2,500-foot buffer zone or setback between fossil fuel businesses and homes and schools. This year, a bill to ban fracking and to establish a buffer zone failed in a vote in the State Committee.
Other oil-producing states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas, have already established some sort of buffer zone between properties and wells.
In 2019, Newsom directed its regulators to look into such a health and safety regulation, but they failed to meet the December 2020 deadline for action. State oil regulators also missed a newer deadline in the spring to enact new regulations that would help protect the health and safety of people near drilling sites. The California Geologic Energy Management Division, which oversees the state’s fossil fuel industries, has not yet set a new regulatory schedule.
The governor has now approved around 9,014 oil and gas permits since 2019, according to an analysis of government data from Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.
“Frontline communities have waited too long for very basic protection from dangerous oil and gas projects,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney for the Center for Biodiversity, which recently sued the state for doing thousands of drilling and fracking jobs. Projects approved without the required permits had environmental assessment.
“A safety buffer is the absolute minimum,” said Kretzmann. “The fact that our state continues to delay is frustrating and completely unacceptable.”
Josiah Edwards, 21, grew up near the largest oil refinery on the west coast. “Oil drilling and refining has always been a present background in my life,” he said.
Emma Newburger | CNBC
The Western States Petroleum Association and the State Building and Construction Trades Council have opposed a nationwide mandate to establish buffer zones, arguing that doing so would harm workers and increase fuel costs.
“A single state approach to a problem like this is rarely good public policy,” said WSPA spokesman Kevin Slagle. “Kickback distances that are not based on region-specific data could have a significant impact on communities, jobs, and the affordability and reliability of energy in the state.”
Environmentalists have also urged Newsom to impose an immediate moratorium on all new oil and gas permits in these zones.
Earlier this year, the governor directed state authorities to halt new fracking permits by 2024 and consider halting oil production by 2045. The announcement marked a change in position from Newsom, who previously said it had no executive powers to ban fracking. According to the California Department of Conservation, that accounts for only 2% of California’s oil production.
Newsom’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Newsom’s predecessor Jerry Brown, who served between 2011 and 2018, approved 21,397 new oil wells. More than three-quarters of the new wells under Brown’s management are in low-income communities and paint communities, according to state data analyzed by the Center for Biodiversity.
“I could have had a better life”
Josiah Edwards, 21, grew up in Carson, a town in the South Bay region of Los Angeles and close to the West Coast’s largest oil refinery owned by Marathon Petroleum Corp. heard. Edwards and his family members suffered from asthma and were constantly worried about breathing in emissions from nearby refineries.
“Oil drilling and refining has always been a presence in my life,” said Edwards, who now volunteers for the Sunrise Movement, an environmental group in Los Angeles.
Edwards remembered getting bloody noses as a child and linking them to pollution from refineries. He delved into research on how exposure to pollution can contribute to the development of childhood asthma and wondered if his life would have been any different than he grew up elsewhere.
“It makes me angry and upset. There is a situation where, with improved health outcomes, I could have had a better life,” said Edwards. “Even if it still makes me angry, I find a lot of hope in what could be. There is potential for change.”
Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry said the company’s Carson refinery has invested in air emission control equipment over the past decade and has reduced its pollutant emissions by 35%. It has also invested $ 25 million in installing air monitoring systems around its facilities and making those results available to the public.
The Wilmington Athletic Complex is located next to oil tanks.
Emma Newburger | CNBC
Exit from oil and gas on site
Some parts of the state have taken matters into their own hands.
Culver City, LA County, issued an ordinance phasing out oil and gas production in its portion of the Inglewood Oil Field within five years, in one of the most ambitious moves in any oil producing jurisdiction. The ordinance also requires that all wells be closed and abandoned during this period.
Ventura County, northwest of LA, has established a buffer zone of 2,500 meters between oil wells and schools and 1,500 feet between wells and homes.
And LA County rulers unanimously voted earlier this month to phase out oil and gas drilling and to ban new drilling locations in the non-incorporated areas. The county stands ready to determine the fastest route to legal decommissioning of wells before providing a timeline for phasing out.
Jacob Roper, a spokesman for the Department of Conservation, of which CalGEM is a sub-agency, said the department is “working hard to develop a science-based health and safety ordinance to protect communities and workers from the effects of oil exploration. “
“This is a complex set of rules with something outside of our previous regulatory experience,” said Roper. “It involves working closely with other government agencies and an independent panel of public health experts to ensure a thorough analysis of relevant scientific and technical practices.”
According to a recent study commissioned by the city, LA could become one of the first major cities in the US to cut fossil fuels almost entirely from its energy supply without harming the economy. Technologies like solar parks, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles would enable the transition while reducing harmful air pollution in the most vulnerable communities.
“There are local officials who take this issue seriously,” said Kretzmann. “But the fires, prolonged drought and heat waves in California are a strong indication that we need to be much more courageous about fossil fuels.”