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LA County isn’t doing enough to protect people living near oil wells, study says

LONG BEACH, CA - MAY 30:  An oil well pumps in a newly constructed neighborhood near Shell Oil Company Alamitos No. 1 discovery well on Signal Hill on May 30, 2003 in Long Beach, California. Alamitos No. 1 was created in 1921 and helped establish California as one of the world's major oil-producing states. The Signal Hill Oil Field, now known as the Long Beach Oil Field, reportedly had the world's highest oil production per acre by the mid-twentieth century. Hundreds of companies and individuals became rich on minute leases, some locations so close that derrick legs overlapped. New housing and stores are now being built among operating oil wells. Farther north, a cancer scare has swept over Beverly Hills High School where environmental activist Erin Brockovich and her boss, lawyer Ed Masry, are alleging that toxic fumes from oil wells on the campus have created a "cancer cluster" that is 20 times higher than the national average.   (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
David McNew/Getty Images
Pumpjacks on Signal Hill on May 30, 2003 in Long Beach, California.

Los Angeles County is not doing enough to keep people who live alongside oil wells from getting sick.

That’s the finding of a new study by the county’s Department of Public Health, which recommends increasing the distance between oil wells and places where people live, work and play.

“This confirms what community in South Los Angeles and Wilmington have known for a long time from their own personal experience,” said Martha Dina Argüello, the head of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “Wells operating within neighborhoods have a clear health and safety threat.”

Los Angeles County has more than 5,300 wells, some 3,400 of which are actively producing oil or gas. The DPH study largely focused on wells in the City of Los Angeles, in areas like Wilmington, South Los Angeles and Echo Park where residents are mostly low-income and people of color.

“The potential public health impacts of oil and gas sites located in densely populated areas are concerning,” the study authors wrote, “particularly to those who experience disproportionate economic and health inequities.”

The study comes at a time when oil and gas companies in greater Los Angeles are under increasing pressure from environmental justice organizations who question whether it make sense to continue oil extraction in dense, urban areas — and whether the practice aligns with the state's climate goals.

For years, people living alongside oil wells have complained of nose bleeds, headaches and difficulty breathing. They have blamed those problems on the oil wells that sometimes arein front yardsand outside bedroom windows.

Yet DPH investigators found it difficult to blame the health impacts experienced by local residents squarely on the oil wells, partially because LA’s notoriously polluted air makes it difficult to parse out the sources for the chemicals people are exposed to.  “The literature to date provides limited evidence to link adverse health effects to living near oil and gas operations,” the authors wrote. “Quality exposure data that measures people’s exposure over long periods of time is missing.”

To address the lack of good data, DPH recommended that oil and gas wells within the urban parts of the county install air monitors that report chemical exposures in real time. Currently, just a handful of oil wells, including the Jefferson and the AllenCo sites near the University of Southern California, are required to have these monitors.

But the lack of conclusive evidence that oil wells were causing harm didn’t stop DPH from recommending that the county take action to protect residents.

“You never really necessarily want to wait for people to get disease before you start acting,” said Cyrus Rangan, director of the Bureau of Toxicology and Environmental Assessment at the Department of Public Health and a study co-author. “The idea is to try to prevent things from happening in the first place.”

Rangan and his co-authors found the the current distance between homes and new oil wells in unincorporated LA County, 300 feet, is insufficient to protect residents from noxious odors, harmful emissions and loud noises. The report notes some jurisdictions have established 1,500-foot buffers to reduce pollution, noise and odors. 

However, many older oil wells are within 300 feet of homes, schools and other public places. Rangan said in these places, more localized emissions data is needed to determine how wells are affecting people's health. But, he said, there are likely some oil wells that should just be shut down.

"There may be situations in and around Los Angeles where we have operations that simply are too close to people where no mitigation measures are going to be protective of that community," he said.

But Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for the California Independent Petroleum Association, said decreasing oil production in Los Angeles County would result in more oil being imported from places with less strict environmental regulations than California. She said companies are already going to undergo increased monitoring as part of a new statewide California Air Resources Board program to study air quality in polluted neighborhoods. Lockhart said it made sense to analyze that data before enacting any additional countywide regulations.

Alan Krupnik, who researches oil and gas regulations for the Washington D.C.-based non-profit Resources for the Future, said DPH's recommendations were fair and made sense given how many people live alongside oil wells in Los Angeles.

“Los Angeles is very densely populated related to other places where there is significant oil and gas development,” he said. “So if there is a [public health] effect, the effect is going to be larger there than in rural North Dakota.”

Meanwhile, the City of Los Angeles is currently studyingthe public health benefits and economic consequences of phasing out out oil wells around schools, houses, and other public places. Uduak-Joe Ntuk, the city’s petroleum administrator, said he would use the county’s report in his analysis, but had no word on when it would be completed.

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a new multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.