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South LA residents worried about oil drilling in neighborhoods

A standing-room-only crowd of more than 300 South Los Angeles residents and community leaders gathered Saturday morning at the Holman United Methodist Church to express concern about new oil wells proposed for a site in the Jefferson Park neighborhood that would use a potentially dangerous extraction technology.

The Murphy Drill Site, operated by Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas, is located west of USC in a dense neighborhood where residents say it's unsafe to use a new technique of injecting chemicals — including  toxic hydrochloric acid and benzene — deep into the earth to dissolve rocks and shale in order to extract oil.

The modern-day technology, called “acidization,” is different from conventional oil extraction that relies upon vertical, relatively shallow wells. Acidization, by contrast, requires deep, horizontal drilling that spiderwebs beneath neighborhoods.

“It’s a new process being used under very, very old permits and very old regulations,” said Jefferson Park resident Donna Ann Ward. “What happens when those rocks are gone in an earthquake zone? What happens if all of those chemicals, all of those acids are not neutralized? We’re talking about some really toxic stuff.”

Ward is among the local residents who spoke at Saturday’s meeting to call for, among other things, an environmental impact report and new regulations for the modern-day drilling and chemical injection that’s happening.

“We don’t want them operating with permits from the '20s and '30s or even the '50s and '60s,” Ward told KPCC.

"It’s very scary and we’re very concerned and committed to get some answers from these folks and do something about this,” added Dolores Spears, a Jefferson Park resident and board member of UNNC United Neighbors Neighborhood Council.

Many of those in attendance said that, until recently, they weren’t even aware of the revival in oil drilling now happening in their neighborhood.  

Among those taken by surprise was Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson,  who, along with State Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Culver City) and Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), attended the two-hour citizens' meeting.

“When you look at the map in Los Angeles County, [at] all of the wells we have in residential areas — I hate to sound dumb, but I didn't know — it is shocking, shocking the number,” Wesson said of the hundreds of wells that pepper the oil-rich Los Angeles basin.

Approval to operate new wells is granted by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources at the California Department of Conservation. But for wells in its jurisdiction, land use permits also have to be approved by the City of Los Angeles. The proposed wells in question sit in Wesson's district. 

Wesson last Wednesday helped broker a temporary moratorium with Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas LLC until more is known about the site's operations at 2126 W. Adams Boulevard. No one from Freeport-McMo spoke at the meeting.

“We’re working in conjunction with the state and federal government to try to come up with a way to get a handle on this situation," Wesson told reporters. " It’s not just here, it’s everywhere.”

Freeport-McMoRan also operates a separate site north of USC where oil producer AllenCo voluntarily suspended operations  last November after neighbor complaints about fumes and health problems. Environmental Protection Agency officials also reported suffering respiratory problems as they toured the site last fall. 

Last week, the City of Los Angeles filed suit to keep the facility closed until the company can guarantee the health and safety of people living nearby.