‘Ground zero for pollution:’ In this L.A. neighborhood surrounded by oil refineries, residents grapple with health issues

Magali Sanchez-Hall, a Wilmington resident for over two decades, has struggled with asthma her entire life. She says the health issue stems from her proximity to oil and gas drilling.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

LOS ANGELES, CALIF. — Stepping out of a coffee shop near Interstate 110 in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, you’re immediately hit by a foul odor.

Magali Sanchez-Hall, 51, who’s lived here for more than two decades, is used to the smell of rotting eggs wafting from the hundreds of oil wells operating in the neighborhood. She’s used to her neighbors describing chronic coughs, skin rashes and cancer diagnoses, and to the asthma that affects her own family, who live only 1,500 feet from a refinery.

“When people are getting sick with cancer or having asthma, they might think it’s normal or blame genetics,” she said. “We don’t often look at the environment we’re in and think — the chemicals we’re breathing are the cause.”

Wilmington, a predominantly working-class and Latino 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 non-profit Communities for a Better Environment. It’s surrounded by six oil refineries and wedged in by several freeways and the ports of L.A. and Long Beach.

California, the seventh-largest oil-producing state in the U.S., has no rule or standard for the distance that active oil wells need to be from communities. For many Californians, especially Black and brown residents, acrid smells, noise and dirt from oil production is part of the neighborhood.

Walking around Wilmington, pumpjacks are visible in public parks, next to schoolyards where children play and outside of people’s windows at home. At night, the sky is lit orange from refinery flares.

The discovery of oil in the 1920s led to significant population growth in the area. People built and bought houses next to the oil fields and refineries, which employ thousands of residents in the area. In L.A. County, the industry employs about 37,000 people, according to a report by Capitol Matrix Consulting.

Oil tanks wedged between homes in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

More than 2 million California residents live within 2,500 feet of an operational oil and gas well and another 5 million — 14% of the state’s population — are within 1 mile, according to an analysis by the non-profit FracTracker Alliance.

Residents are especially vulnerable in L.A. County, which is home to the Inglewood Oil Field. The 1,000-acre site is one of the largest urban oil fields in the country and is owned and operated by Sentinel Peak Resources. More than half a million people live within a quarter mile of active wells that release hazardous air pollutants like benzene, hydrogen sulfide, particulate matter and formaldehyde.

Sentinel Peak did not respond to requests for comment.

Sanchez-Hall didn’t understand the link between the nearby refineries and the health issues in her community until she left. She graduated college and pursued a masters degree at UCLA, where she took environmental law classes, and now advocates for clean air and energy in her neighborhood.

“Wilmington is ground zero for pollution,” Sanchez-Hall said. “Now I understood why people were dying of cancer around me. We’re not disposable people. There is a huge disadvantage because many of us don’t know what’s happening.”

No buffer zone between drilling and people

Research shows that people who live near oil and gas drilling sites are exposed to harmful pollution and are at greater risk of preterm births, asthma, respiratory disease and cancer.

Residing near oil wells is linked to reduced lung function and wheezing, and in some cases the respiratory damage rivals that of daily exposure to secondhand smoke or living beside a freeway, according to a recent study published in the journal Environmental Research.

Another study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, analyzed nearly 3 million births in California of women living within 6.2 miles of at least one oil or gas well. The authors concluded that living near those wells during pregnancy increased the risk of low-birthweight babies.

Environmental advocacy groups have urged California Gov. Gavin Newsom to instate a 2,500-foot buffer zone, or setback, between fossil fuel operations and homes and schools. This year, a bill to ban fracking and instate a buffer zone failed in a state committee vote.

Other oil-producing states including Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Texas have already implemented some form of buffer zone between properties and wells.

In 2019, Newsom ordered his regulators to study such a health-and-safety rule, but they didn’t meet the December 2020 deadline for action. State oil regulators also missed a more recent deadline in the spring to release new regulations that would help protect the health and safety of people living near drilling sites. The California Geologic Energy Management Division, which oversees the state’s fossil fuel industries, hasn’t yet set a new timeline for regulations.

Meanwhile, the governor since 2019 has approved roughly 9,014 oil and gas permits, according to an analysis of state data by Consumer Watchdog and FracTracker Alliance.

“Frontline communities have been waiting for very basic protections from dangerous oil and gas projects for too long,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, which recently sued the state for approving thousands of drilling and fracking projects without the required environmental review.

“A safety buffer is the bare minimum,” Kretzmann said. “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 refineries were always an ever 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 statewide mandate to establish buffer zones, arguing that doing so would harm workers and increase fuel costs.

“A one-size-fits-all approach for an entire state for an issue like this is rarely good public policy,” said WSPA spokesman Kevin Slagle. “Setback distances not based data specific to a region could lead to significant impacts on communities, jobs and the affordability and reliability of energy in the state.”

Environmentalists have also called on Newsom to place an immediate moratorium on all new oil and gas permits in those zones.

Earlier this year, the governor directed state agencies to halt new fracking permits by 2024 and to consider phasing out oil production by 2045. The announced marked a shift in position by Newsom, who’s previously said he doesn’t have executive authority to ban fracking, which accounts for just 2% of oil extraction in California, according to the state’s Department of Conservation.

Newsom’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, who held office between 2011 and 2018, approved 21,397 new oil wells. More than three-quarters of new wells under Brown’s administration are in low-income communities and communities of color, according to state data analyzed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

‘I could have had a better life’

Josiah Edwards, 21, grew up in Carson, a city located in the south bay region of Los Angeles and near the West Coast’s largest oil refinery, owned by Marathon Petroleum Corp. Edwards and his family members suffered from asthma and were constantly concerned about breathing in emissions of the nearby refineries.

“Oil drilling and refineries were always an ever present background in my life,” said Edwards, who now volunteers for the Sunrise Movement, an environmental advocacy group, in Los Angeles.

Edwards recalled getting bloody noses as a child and coming to connect them with the pollution from refineries. He dove into research on how exposure to pollution may contribute to the development of asthma in childhood and wondered if his life would have been different growing up elsewhere.

“It makes me angry and upset. There’s a situation where I could have had a better life with improved health outcomes,” Edwards said. “Even though it still makes me feel angry, I find a lot of hope in what could be. There’s a potential for change.”

Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry said the company’s refinery in Carson has invested in air emissions control equipment and cut its criteria pollutant emissions by 35% in the past decade. It’s also invested $25 million to install air monitoring systems along the perimeter of its facilities, and is providing those results to the public.

Wilmington Athletic Complex is located beside oil tanks.
Emma Newburger | CNBC

Phasing out oil and gas locally

Some parts of the state have taken matters into their own hands.

Culver City in L.A. County passed an ordinance to phase out oil and gas extraction in its portion of the Inglewood Oil Field within five years, in one of the most ambitious moves by an oil-producing jurisdiction. The ordinance also requires that all the wells be plugged and abandoned in that time period.

Ventura County, located northwest of L.A., has adopted a 2,500 buffer zone between oil wells and schools and 1,500 feet between wells and homes.

And L.A. County supervisors voted unanimously earlier this month to phase out oil and gas drilling and ban new drill sites in the unincorporated areas. The county is set to determine the quickest way to shut down wells legally before providing a timeline on the phase out.

Jacob Roper, a spokesperson for the Department of Conservation, of which CalGEM is a sub-agency, said the department is “hard at work developing a science-based health and safety regulation to protect communities and workers from the impacts of oil extraction activities.”

“This is a complex set of rules with subject matter outside of our previous regulatory experience,” Roper said. “It involves close collaboration with other state agencies and an independent public health expert panel in an effort to ensure a thorough analysis of relevant science and engineering practices.”

L.A. could become one of the first major cities in the U.S. to nearly phase out fossil fuels from power supply without disruption to the economy, according to a recent study commissioned by the city. Technologies like solar farms, wind turbines, batteries and electric vehicles would make the transition possible, while mitigating harmful air pollution in the most vulnerable communities.

“There are local officials who are taking this issue seriously,” Kretzmann said. “But the fires, ongoing drought and heatwaves in California are stark reminders that we need much bolder action on fossil fuels.”

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