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.
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.”