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Is Los Angeles giving oil drilling in neighborhoods a pass?

Living above one of the largest concentrations of oil in the world, many residents say L.A.'s drilling lacks oversight

Updated Aug. 26: Since America Tonight’s story aired, Los Angeles City Councilman Herb Wesson issued a letter firmly stating his opposition to the installation of a gas burner at the Murphy Oil site. He had previously objected only to its location.

LOS ANGELES – Biniyam Asnake, 16, doesn’t know much about one neighbor in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.

“They are kind of secretive. They have high walls, so a lot of people don’t know they are here,” he said. “There is funny smoke, but [you] don’t know where it’s coming from … and then, on the doors, you see, ‘Can cause birth defects,’ all these warnings … and you kind of wonder what’s there.”

Except for a few signs, it’s tough to figure out that their neighbor is a Murphy Oil Corporation drilling site, which is also close to a nursing home, a mental health care facility and an assisted-living center.

Resident James Breton lives across the street from the Murphy site, but only learned a few years ago that it was an active oil field.

“I think it’s too close. Look how close those apartments are. Look how close it is to that hospital,” he said. He added: “I thought drilling was isolated from communities like this, but it’s in the heart of it.”

Los Angeles has one of the largest concentrations of petroleum in the world, and pumping oil is part of backdrop of living in the City of Angels. Sometimes, the drilling operations are disguised as buildings, though many of the 3,000 oil wells in Los Angeles County hide in plain sight – like the one in Asnake’s neighborhood.

The Murphy Oil site is one of at least 17 oil sites in Los Angeles that are dangerously close to schools, homes and churches, according to a January study by the Council of Health Communities. The study found that many of the oil sites are located in low-income neighborhoods.

America Tonight visited a few of those drilling sites, including the Jefferson Oil site, which operates next to an apartment complex. From one kitchen window, 30 oil wells and several barrels bearing hazardous material labels can be seen. 

Many of the 3,000 oil wells in Los Angeles County hide in plain sight, located in regular urban neighborhoods.
America Tonight

"On this side of the wall, there will be workers in head-to-toe protective gear standing behind red danger tape," watchdog Richard Parks showed us. "While here, residents – here’s their bedroom windows – where they have no notification that any of toxic chemicals are being pumped underneath their home next door."

Despite increased drilling at the Jefferson and Murphy sites, neither has been subjected to an environmental impact report. In fact, according to the Council of Health Communities study, 15 other sites in the city have also been exempt from environmental impact reports.

That’s not surprising to Michael Salman, a UCLA history professor who lives near both sites. He says he started looking into the city’s oversight of Murphy in 2014 after learning at a community meeting oil operators were drilling new wells at Murphy without approval. Salman found that city officials consistently granted “categorical exemptions” to oil operators who wanted to drill new wells, old wells or and add significantly new equipment to their sites.

“The categorical exemption means that a project is considered exempt from any environmental review at all,” said Salman, who added the use of exemptions is “a failure on the part of the city.”

Planning administrators have granted the exemptions, noting drilling of old or new wells is not considered a “new project” and therefore not subject to environmental review. 

“The city of L.A. has never done any environmental review, even less than a full environmental impact report for any project at any well site in the city of Los Angeles that I have been able to find,” he said. 

One of the many drilling sites located in Los Angeles neighborhoods.
America Tonight

After reviewing city planning records and databases, with the exception of one environmental impact report, America Tonight couldn’t find any environmental impact reports on any active oil sites in Los Angeles for the last 30 years. Officials at the city’s planning department couldn’t recall any environmental impact reports being done.

Like the Murphy site, homes and schools surround the Allenco Oil site in South Los Angeles, with landscaped walls around the site. In 2010, Allenco increased oil production by 400 percent, according to the Los Angeles Times, but was not subjected to an environmental impact report. Soon after the increase, residents began to complain to local government agencies of bloody noses, headaches and noxious smells. More than 250 complaints were eventually reported, but the site remained open until it voluntarily closed in November 2013 after four EPA inspectors fell ill while at the facility. (The company is reportedly negotiating with the city to reopen the site.)

Residents were surprised to learn that the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles owns the land at Murphy and Allenco – all the more surprising perhaps given how outspoken Pope Francis has been about climate change. Though the Church declined an interview with America Tonight, a spokeswoman did confirm the Church gets oil royalties, but wouldn’t say how much. She also said the Church can’t get out of the leases with the oil companies as long as oil is being pumped.

When asked if an environmental impact review would be required this time around, Los Angeles City Councilmember Gil Cedillo, who represents the area around the Allenco site, didn’t know and said he would have to check with his staff. A community meeting to discuss the reopening is scheduled for next week.

He also said there is “no evidence” the city has a pattern of not requiring environmental impact reports and added the oversight is “robust.” 

“There is no evidence that there is rubber-stamping of any project, particularly that impedes in the health and safety of the public,” Cedillo said.

They are kind of secretive. They have high walls, so a lot of people don’t know they are here. There is funny smoke, but [you] don’t know where it’s coming from … and then, on the doors, you see, ‘Can cause birth defects,’ all these warnings … and you kind of wonder what’s there.

Biniyam Asnake

Salman disagrees, saying that the city is not following its own environmental laws – and that Los Angeles leaders know it.

“The City Council people have been advised of this repeatedly,” he said.

At the Murphy site, Freeport MacMoRan Oil & Gas, the oil operator, was granted a categorical exemption to install a gas burner. If approved, the burner, which has not been subjected to an environmental review, may end up outside the oil site enclosure and closer to Asnake’s bedroom.

“It’s kind of scary,” he said. “So when I wake up, that’s what I’m going to see.”

Company officials at Freeport MacMoRan did not respond to repeated requests for comment, but the company has stated in public meetings that the burner is not an expansion of use and is not a new project.

For a city that’s trying to be the national model of green and sustainable living, Salman said he thinks the current landscape in Los Angeles is an embarrassment.

“California has a reputation for being a leader in environmental protection,” he said. “And yet, here in urban Los Angeles, it’s going in the wrong direction.”

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