West Adams Oil Blues

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February 1, 2014 · Posted in Commentary 
Allenco Energy drill site in West Adams' University Park.

Allenco Energy drill site in West Adams’ University Park.

Leslie Evans, in consultation with Michael Salman

My neighborhood is the West Adams section of Los Angeles, just south and west of Downtown. Its miles of historic, century-old Craftsman homes, interspersed with sixties-vintage apartments, house a mixture of recent Latino immigrants, older African Americans, and a minority of whites and Asians. We’ve been in the newspapers a lot recently in disputes with two oil companies over three of their urban drill sites. At one of them, run by the Allenco Energy company, children have been getting sick. Nosebleeds, respiratory problems, headaches, and nausea have been chronic, leading finally to protest meetings, one attended by some two hundred residents, intervention by the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the County Health Department, and a lawsuit by the Los Angeles City Attorney.

At the other two sites, owned by Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas, concerns began over ill-kept property, or fears that plans for new drilling would generate noise and pollution. As news reports of the health problems at Allenco spread, neighbors near the Freeport sites heard about a gas leak at one of the well sites and a few accounts of people who may have been sickened by fumes in the past. One public meeting drew more than 300 residents. City officials responded by temporarily closing the Allenco site entirely, while at the Freeport sites routine pumping continues but scheduled new drilling has been put on hold.

There are many complex technical, public health, political, and regulatory issues that are in play here. Some residents want the oil sites shut down. Some want new drilling prohibited or bans against the use of hydrofracturing and similar technologies. Others at the minimum want them thoroughly audited for health risks, all such risks promptly eliminated, and some more vigorous system of oversight put in place than what now exists. The matter is complicated by the absence in the City of Los Angeles of a comprehensive regulatory framework for oil drilling and production within city limits. Statutes, though detailed on how to apply to dig an oil well, and categorical in prohibiting odorous fumes or excessive noise that affect adjacent residences, are vague on the specifics and on enforcement, generally referring regulation of existing oil sites to individual Zoning Administrators, who are not proactive in looking into conditions at drill sites or even have any specific rules on what kind of complaints can trigger a zoning hearing. Zoning Administrators have little guidance from the city code and must decide in each case what conditions to impose on a producer.

This situation is substantially different over the border in Los Angeles County, where in 2006 two massive emissions of toxic fumes from the giant Inglewood Oil Field raised such an outburst of community protest that the then-operator, Plains Exploration and Production (PXP), was compelled to agree to the creation of a Community Standards District with far more specific and stringent regulations than now exist in Los Angeles, and an oversight body to enforce them.

The current residential protest in West Adams is focused on a small group of oil wells – approximately 121 at the three sites, most of which have existed for at least fifty years, though new technologies and some drilling since 2010 have raised new issues. These are a tiny fraction of the 41 urban oil fields under the Los Angeles Basin, where 5,000 wells currently produce 28 million barrels a year – at today’s price, worth about $2.7 billion. Resolution of the controversy over the three West Adams sites has a broader interest, as it is at least possible that it could set a precedent that would affect the whole system.

People generally think of oil wells as sitting in a barren section of Texas and Oklahoma, or for the newer hydraulic fracturing efforts, in the sparsely populated hinterland of North Dakota. But urban Los Angeles was once a major player in world oil markets and it remains the country’s largest urban oil cluster. The first well here was dug at 3rd Street and Coronado, north of West Adams in the Wilshire district, back in 1857. It became a major industry when Edward Doheny, a founder of West Adams, in 1892 struck oil near Westlake Park, digging with a sharpened tree trunk. He soon became the richest man in America. In the 1920s Los Angeles was the largest oil exporting region in the world, outdoing Saudi Arabia and Iran. It peaked in 1969 at an annual 133 million barrels, one year before U.S. national production also topped out, at 9.6 million barrels a day.

The original crude was liquid under pressure. It was accessed by digging straight down from a tall derrick, then extracting with the ubiquitous pumpjacks, whose bobbing heads in places like Signal Hill looked like a field of those Magic Drinking Bird toys. As early as the 1930s these highly visible outcroppings were supplemented by horizontal, or slant, drilling deep underground. In the early 1960s this became the predominant drilling method, creating a huge spider web of metal sipping straws radiating from fixed drill heads. And as the sipping exhausted the readily accessible liquid supply, most of these ceased operations.

If our city has been pumping oil in residential neighborhoods for a hundred and fifty years, what has changed to cause the sudden outburst of health complaints? The key event was the flat-lining of world crude oil production, which peaked in 2004-2005 and has not increased since then despite growing world demand. This triggered a global search for alternatives to supplement ordinary liquid crude. Employing relatively new technologies, these were found in so-called unconventional oil: fracked tight oil in North Dakota and Texas, Canadian tar sands, deepwater oil mainly from the Gulf of Mexico, and Venezuelan heavy oil. It is these very expensive and difficult to obtain and process sources that have been the basis of virtually all the increase in the world supply since 2005. But the immediate effect was to see the price of oil skyrocket.

Oil sold for under $5 a barrel from 1870 until 1970, then began to zigzag upward, fluctuating from the teens to the low twenties between 1974 and 2002. As the world oil supply stagnated, it hit $37 in 2004 and $50 in 2005. For the next six years it was mostly in the high eighties, and in the last year between $90 and $100 a barrel.

One consequence of the price escalation was to have oil companies return to the underground Los Angeles fields, buying up wells their predecessors had abandoned in the 1980s. In some cases, in going after the last of the difficult-to-access oil they also began using new technologies, mainly well stimulation by acidization, using large amounts of hydrochloric and other acids to dissolve rock and mud blocking narrow, oil-filled fissures to release the last of the hydrocarbons.

The companies are finding that the citizenry are not as accepting of their operations as people were a hundred years ago. There is a strong environmental consciousness, an experience of protest dating from the 1960s, and an acquired habit of NIMBYism. And when oil operations are not just a noisy and sometimes unsightly nuisance but a genuine menace, in cases where the new technologies such as acidization are used in reopened wells that are more than fifty years old and not in the best of condition, public resistance gains a great deal of traction.

The first, and still most serious, confrontation between outraged citizens and the oil companies occurred early in 2006 at the giant Inglewood Oil Field in Baldwin Hills, when fume leaks from underground wells twice forced the evacuation of some 500 homes. There had been no requirement that nearby residents be informed of activities carried out in the oil field, no adequate provision for periodic safety reviews, and of course, no citizen participation in oversight of this potentially dangerous installation in their midst. The leaks provoked a citizen protest that resulted in the most stringent regulations in the state. Because the wellhead was on County land, although the underground wells to a small degree reach into Los Angeles and Culver City, the new oversight system ended in County jurisdiction, so the new and better rules did not apply across the border in the City of Los Angeles.

Trouble at the Allenco Drill Site

The first West Adams complaints arose around the Allenco Energy Inc. drill site at 814 W. 23rd Street in the University Park neighborhood north of USC. The company is owned by Peter Allen and runs 21 oil wells in Los Angeles, all spreading out from the 23rd Street location, and 8 more in Signal Hill. In 2010 they reopened existing pipes at the 23rd Street drill site, and used acid well stimulation to massively boost production.

An undated early 2013 profile of eighty-year-old Peter Allen on WellServicingMagazine.com says that Allenco “increased production in the majority of its wells by 30 percent, due largely to downhole stimulation, acid work and the upgrade of pumping units.” Allen also saves money by passing over trained oil workers, “hiring ‘good people’ with no industry experience and then training them for their jobs.” How has that worked out for him and his neighbors?

The story hit the Los Angeles Times on September 21, 2013. Reporter Louis Sahagun began a long series on the Allenco operation. Children were getting sick with nosebleeds and respiratory problems. There were bad smells that made people keep their windows closed and their children indoors. Residents “traced the smell to property shielded from the neighborhood by a 12-foot-high, ivy-covered wall. Behind it, on land leased from the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, Allenco Energy Inc. had ramped up production from an oil field by more than 400%.”

All 21 of the underground wells had been shut down in the 1990s. Beginning in 2005, 7 to 10 of them were unplugged and put back in service. After the 2010 production boost and the start of resident complaints, the AQMD filed 15 citations against Allenco for foul odors, but these, even with fines, did not succeed in getting Allenco to abate the problems. By late 2013 the AQMD acknowledged receiving 251 complaints. Resident logs listed some 360.

The AQMD insisted that almost all of its 2011 tests showed the fumes to be within legal limits, but it conceded that allowing such an industrial operation in a residential zone “boils down to incompatible zoning.” Dr. James Dahlgren, who formerly taught at the UCLA School of Public Health, was a department head at Cedar Sinai, and is best known as an adviser to Erin Brockovich, disagreed that current legal limits are safe. “If you can smell it, it’s not safe. These people are experiencing symptoms.”

Apart from chemicals used to decalcify old wells or dissolve limestone and mud fissure blocks, petroleum and concurrent natural gas themselves emit hydrogen sulfide (H2S), a colorless gas that smells like rotten eggs. It is heavier than air, so it lingers near the ground. It is poisonous, corrosive, flammable and explosive. A sign inside the Allenco property, but not on the outside, warns: “Danger: H2S. Poisonous Gas.” The government’s Occupational Safety and Health information sheet on Hydrogen Sulfide states: “Low concentrations irritate the eyes, nose, throat and respiratory system (e.g., burning/tearing of eyes, cough, shortness of breath). Asthmatics may experience breathing difficulties. . . . Repeated or prolonged exposures may cause eye inflammation, headache, fatigue, irritability, insomnia, digestive disturbances and weight loss.”

One AQMD sample from a wastewater tank in September 2011 showed hydrocarbon levels 10,000 times above that of the surrounding air. Complaints of persistent bad smells by students and faculty at the nearby Mount St. Mary’s College led the AQMD to order Allenco to pay to have all the air conditioning intake vents on the classroom buildings that faced the oil operation relocated.

Any thought that the neighbors’ symptoms were exaggerated were dispelled when, on November 6, federal inspectors from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived, and were sickened by fumes. Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, personally led the team. Afterward he told the LA Times: “I’ve been to oil and gas production facilities throughout the region, but I’ve never had an experience like that before. We suffered sore throats, coughing and severe headaches that lingered for hours.”

U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer called for a shutdown until the EPA completed its findings. The Los Angeles County Health Department launched its own investigation.

Allenco voluntarily shut down on November 22. The South Coast AQMD  announced that improvements must at minimum include taking an open-air drain and sump out of service, repairing tanks, and upgrading air pollution control systems. Meanwhile, neighbors held two townhall meetings with AQMD officials, one in October with more than 100 people, and another in early December attended by more than 200.

By this time separate investigations were underway by the federal EPA, the South Coast AQMD, and the Los Angeles County Health Department, as well as the Los Angeles Archdiocese, which leases the land to Allenco. County Environmental Health Director Angelo Bellomo was quoted by the LA Times as expressing skepticism that the problems at the site were correctible, insisting that “Every square inch of that field must be examined.” He said the audit would be conducted at Allenco’s expense. It is notable that the City of Los Angeles, despite the extent of oil operations within its borders, has no specific agency charged with overseeing the local oil industry. It once had such an agency, the Oil Services Department, that managed oil and gas drilling within city limits, which was in operation in the 1960s, but it has since been disbanded.

On January 7, 2014, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a lawsuit against Allenco Energy Inc. Feuer charged that Allenco had “failed to maintain mandated fire suppression systems, failed to comply with water quality control requirements, failed to provide any information regarding the location and type of stored hazardous materials, and failed to file hazardous materials response plans.” The complaint noted that on January 25, 2011, a leak of production water contaminated with chemicals sent thirteen people on the nearby Mount Saint Mary’s campus for medical treatment. The City Attorney’s complaint added that Allenco sought to disguise the chemical fumes by adding wild-cherry-scented deodorizer, Pine Sol and bleach. The filing also revealed that the 23rd Street operation had been cited for safety violations by the Fire Department, State safety inspectors, and water quality inspectors, but Allenco generally did not correct the violations. It would seem evident that leaving enforcement diffused among a myriad of different agencies does not bring good results.

The County Health Department publicly announced their conclusion that the symptoms of nearby residents, students at local schools, and at Mount Saint Mary’s College were caused by “low-level exposure to petroleum-based compounds emitted by Allenco.” The federal Environmental Protection Agency shared the County Health Department’s view.

The City Attorney’s suit asked for an injunction that would prevent Allenco from reopening until it had complied with all applicable health and safety regulations and not leave this to Allenco’s voluntary compliance.

By January 11, after operations had been suspended for seven weeks, the Times was reporting that nearby residents were saying that symptoms had disappeared. Maria de la Cruz, who lives across the street from the oil field, told Louis Sahagun, “We used to keep the windows closed tight  and made the children play in a back bedroom so they wouldn’t breathe those chemicals. But since the company closed down, the kids haven’t been sick once.” By this time the story had gone national. It was being reported from the Seattle Times to the Miami Herald. Local residents created a video that appealed to Pope Francis, asking him to have the Los Angeles Archdiocese abrogate its lease to Allenco and commit the property to a less harmful use.

On January 15 the EPA filed its own citations against Allenco based on its November 6 inspection. Regional EPA administrator Jared Blumenfeld told the LA Times, “These are troubling violations because they go to the heart of how a safe operation is supposed to be run. That’s why it is critical this facility come into compliance with federal laws quickly.”

As is often the case when people are suffering from pollution and similar hazards, it takes persistent reporting to authorities to get action. In the case of the Allenco oil site a decisive factor in generating the extensive if belated official response was the intervention of the Esperanza Community Housing Corporation, a local nonprofit founded in 1989. Esperanza buys and rehabs apartment buildings to provide affordable housing in the nearby Figueroa Corridor area of South Los Angeles. It also works to improve local health care. It owns four apartment buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Allenco oil site, and several of its staff members live there.

On December 20 I interviewed Nancy Ibrahim, Esperanza’s Executive Director.  She  lives in the area affected by the Allenco oil field and has personally experienced the symptoms that have plagued her neighborhood. She said her own staff who live in the Esperanza apartments registered a sharp increase in sick days after 2010, that people were having very unusual outbreaks of adult-onset asthma, while their children were losing days from school. “We haven’t even raised the issue of long-term risks from this exposure, as we can’t prove that at this point, but the immediate, short-term stuff has been really dramatic, and the city has been very reluctant to take it seriously and move in to fix the problem.”

I asked her how many people had filed complaints with the AQMD. She replied that it was around 30. When the authorities lagged for years in acknowledging or correcting the problem, Esperanza organized a telephone tree. On days when the oil smells were strong, groups of six would call the AQMD report line, 1-800-288-7664, building up the logged record of complaints.

Freeport McMoRan Comes Under Scrutiny

Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas Co. operates three urban oil drill sites in West Adams. The two that have become a focus of community concerns are at 1349-1375  Jefferson Blvd., between Budlong Avenue and Van Buren Place, LA 90007, called the Jefferson Drill Site, and at 2126 W. Adams Blvd. at Gramercy Place , LA 90018, called the Murphy Drill Site. The third, at 3304 W. Washington Blvd., has so far escaped attention. Freeport acquired these properties only in June 2013, when they took over Plains Exploration and Production, which also made Freeport the owner of the Inglewood Oil Field.

Freeport-McMoRan's Jefferson Drill Site

Freeport-McMoRan’s Jefferson Drill Site

Complaints were first raised over the exterior physical conditions at the Jefferson Drill Site. The company’s heavy trucks broke up the sidewalks in the site’s driveways and left them that way; they illegally painted extensions of the red curbs to keep them open for their trucks, which was getting residents parking tickets; they left graffiti unpainted; and did not pick up trash. An opportunity to ask the city to intervene arose when Freeport scheduled a September 24, 2013, zoning hearing seeking permits to drill a new water injection well and to redrill two older wells that had been shut down for some time. The drilling was slated to run 24 hours a day for ninety days. Richard Parks, president of the West Adams Neighborhood Association, took the lead in getting three other block clubs, including the Van Buren Place Community Restoration Association, of which I am president, to file a protest. Zoning Administrator Sue Chang ruled to defer action on the permits on the grounds that Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas had not properly notified residents. In the Los Angeles system it is Building and Safety that issues the permits, but for these kinds of oil issues preapproval by a Zoning Administrator is required.

A public drilling map for the Jefferson Drill Site shows more than 50 underground pipelines spreading out from the wellhead, most densely between Jefferson and 27th Street and between Kenwood Avenue and Hoover, with a few lines running west of Western Avenue and north of Adams Blvd. These underground wells go back to 1965 under various ownership. One of them runs under my house, which is two and a half blocks away, at Van Buren Place and 27th Street. The new well is slated to run from the wellhead to 29th Street, between Orchard and Hoover.

To be clear, as not everyone in our community knows the terminology, none of the West Adams wells, including the few proposed new ones, involve fracking. In hydraulic fracturing the hydrocarbons, oil or natural gas, are in such small units that they are embedded between the pores of the reservoir rocks. The rock must be shattered to connect the pore spaces to let the hydrocarbons flow. Millions of gallons of water, combined with sand  and unspecified chemicals (declared a trade secret by the drilling companies), is injected at high pressure to break up the rock and free the confined oil or natural gas.

In the West Adams drill sites the oil is in pools or in small liquid amounts in blocked fissures in the rock. Lesser means than fracking is sufficient to free the oil or gas. This does not require large volumes of pressurized water or sand. The chemicals used must all be specified to the AQMD. Freeport-McMoRan’s chemical supply list for the Jefferson Drill Site, submitted to the AQMD in advance of seeking the new permits, includes 24,619 pounds of acid, of which, 19,017 was designated as for well stimulation, that is, for acidization.

There are two forms of acidization. In matrix acidization acid is pumped under low pressure into the well pipes. When it reaches the soil at the end of the pipe the acid dissolves sediment and mud blocking tiny fissures to free liquid oil. Fracturing acidization in contrast pumps the acid at high pressure to cut channels in the rock as well as dissolve sediment to free trapped oil. Freeport’s zoning application does not mention acidization beyond what is in their chemical supply list or specify which kind of acid job they intend to perform. When either kind of acid job is complete the acid and dissolved sediments have to be pumped out in a process called backflush. Some percentage of the acid is neutralized by combining with the base chemical composition of the rock. Though not as drastic as fracking, there are questions about the safety of acidization in an urban setting in wells that are mostly more fifty or more years old, where there may be defects from age in the pipes, joints, pumps, and other equipment.

City Councilmember Bernard Parks hosted a December 19 meeting between community representatives and Freeport-McMoRan. I attended along with presidents of three other nearby block clubs and the pastor of a local church. Freeport was represented by four people, led by John Martini, Manager, Environmental Health, Safety, and Government Affairs, and including their foreman for the Jefferson Drill Site. Martini reported that the oil company had cleaned up all of the specific community complaints about the facility’s appearance: they had painted out graffiti, replaced broken sidewalks, picked up external trash, deleted the illegal extension of the red curbs, and made some repairs to visible damage on their buildings.

By that time the information about health problems at the nearby Allenco Energy Company had raised concerns about possible health threats at Freeport’s operation. We thanked them for the cosmetic improvements, but requested that the federal EPA be asked to inspect the site for health issues. The company representatives simply made no comment on this request. They pointed out that, unlike Allenco, there were no complaints filed with the AQMD about Freeport’s West Adams drill sites. This could mean there are no health problems, or it could mean that people suffering them had not made any official complaint. We have heard from neighbors that at least one student living on Budlong and another living on the Van Buren Place side near the Jefferson site moved out because of noxious fumes. This would have been from the conventional pumping operations, as the new or redrilled wells where acid stimulation is to be used have yet to be approved.

In the weeks that followed, local attention turned to Freeport’s Murphy Drill Site at Adams and Gramercy. That land, like Allenco’s, is owned by the Catholic Church. The first underground wells there were drilled by Union Oil back in 1962. It was acquired in 2000 by BSI, a small independent in Ventura, which in 2004, as oil prices started to head north, began to redrill plugged wells and drill new ones, leading to loud community complaints about noise and foul smells.

BSI seems to have disappeared. From around 2006 the Jefferson, Murphy, and Washington Blvd. drill sites were owned by Plains Exploration and Production. They passed to Freeport-McMoRan Oil and Gas when the companies merged in May 2013.

A Plains Exploration map from June 2008 shows approximately 45 underground well pipes radiating from the Murphy core. These include feeder lines to the other two drill sites, over which their oil and natural gas production is pumped to Murphy to be sent on by pipeline to customers. Natural gas is piped to the city’s Department of Water and Power, which buys it. The reopening of old wells has increased output. Some percentage of the gas arrives at the Murphy site too hot to meet the California Air Resources Board’s rules on sending it on to the DWP by pipeline and it is normally burned off in micro-turbines. These machines are worn out and the company, on the AQMD’s recommendation, is buying a new “clean enclosed burner.” To house it they asked the Zoning Administrator to approve building a new sound-insulated walled enclosure 110 feet long and 30 feet high outside their present retaining wall on the south side of the property, facing 27th Street.

As has become customary for companies undertaking significant new construction, they took their plans to the local neighborhood council, part of the city’s system of semigovernmental citizen organizations created to advise the City Council. In this case it was the United Neighborhoods Neighborhood Council (UNNC). This was done, however, only after the Zoning Administrator had approved the new enclosure.

The UNNC board had no reason to oppose Freeport-McMoRan adopting newer and cleaner equipment to do a job that was already part of their routine and legally  permitted operation. But they were concerned at the lack of transparency in how such decisions are made. The south side of the property consists of a 35-foot-deep open area that has been there since the drill site opened in 1962 and in recent years has been landscaped like a park. The new structure would take up much of that area. The Board said that the residents on 27th Street and adjacent blocks should have been notified and the Zoning Administrator should have held a public hearing for community input. This did not happen. Condition 8 in the 1961 plan for the site required a 35 foot setback from 27th Street on the south side. That will be abrogated by the new installation but appears not to have been specifically addressed by Zoning Administrator David Weintraub.

Since Weintraub had already approved the plan, UNNC did not press for a hearing but did move to request the ZA to do a plan review to reconcile the new structure with the conditions of the 1961 plan, and to verify that the description presented by Freeport’s representative at a November 7 UNNC Board meeting corresponded to what was actually in the plan. In response Weintraub did write a determination letter. Still, the degree to which residents are excluded from the discussions seems to invite arbitrary decisions which, if opinions and information from the community were allowed, might be quite different.

Laura Meyers, a long-time leading figure in the West Adams Heritage Association and the UNNC’s zoning and planning specialist, says the UNNC is looking for a way to appeal Weintraub’s ruling to get a more considered decision on the location of the new equipment at the cost of the green space and its conformity with previous conditions on the property. She points out that Weintraub, who works for the City Planning Department, is also employed there in its Development Service Center, an effort to speed up approvals of business projects to lessen L.A.’s reputation for being business unfriendly. Meyers suggests that being assigned to rush through what business wants while also wearing a ZA’s hat with the requirement of impartially administering city code can be seen as a conflict of interest.

Next, Freeport announced plans for the Murphy Drill Site to seek permits to drill one new well and reopen two old ones. Under city code, before drilling could begin the company had to build a temporary sound wall to protect neighbors from the noise. This required a permit of its own, and preapproval by the design review board of the local Historic Preservation Overlay Zone, the city’s term for a historic district. For reasons that are too complicated to go into here these approvals fell through. Freeport then went ahead and began drilling in late November, at the same time building the sound wall the way they wanted it.

Residents filed complaints with Building and Safety, which opened an investigation November 26. A month later LADBS cited Freeport for constructing the sound wall without permits and having begun drilling without a permitted sound wall. They did issue the permits on January 22, 2014.

Next to step up to the plate was  the Community Coalition, a nonprofit originally formed to oppose the reopening of sacked liquor stores in South Los Angeles after the L.A. riots of 1993. They called a planning meeting on January 2. Some thirty-four people attended and decided to interview residents living in close proximity to the drill site and to call a larger meeting.

Momentum built rapidly. More than 300 people crowded the venerable Holman United Methodist Church on Adams Blvd. for a January 11 event billed as an “Emergency Meeting on New Oil Well Construction in West Adams.” Holman, along with the First African Methodist Episcopal, is one of the largest and most influential African American churches in Los Angeles.

The meeting was chaired by Holman’s Senior Pastor, Kelvin Sauls, who had plainly made a point of becoming familiar with the issue. He opened by calling on Freeport-McMoRan to suspend operations at the Murphy Drill Site “until responsible agencies have completed an inspection to determine its safety.” Thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals, he said, under high pressure, were to be injected to unplug old wells and loosen oil in new ones “in horizontal drilling under our homes.” He estimated that there are “some 100 horizontal drill bores from the two well heads at Adams and Gramercy and Jefferson and Budlong.” Drilling at the Adams-Gramercy site had already begun, illegally, in late November.

Two residents offered personal testimony.

Donald Martin, a former city attorney for Shreveport, Louisiana, lives within 120 feet of the Murphy wells. Between his home and the wells there is only a parking lot. He said he feared that an explosion at the drill site could turn the parked automobiles into a score of firebombs.

“The wells go 24/7. The noise keeps neighbors from sleeping. Large trucks drive in and out day and night. You can smell sulphur.” He said fumes from the oil operation penetrate his home and become concentrated. His eleven-year-old granddaughter, who lives with him, has developed Hodgkins Lymphoma, and while he cannot prove it is due to the chemical fumes he suspects that is the cause.

Donna Ann Ward, who also lives very close to the facility, reported that the previous Tuesday she had smelled something sweet and called the AQMD. They sent an inspector, who found a natural gas leak from the oil site that was running 20,000 parts per million, with the legal limit at 500. She pointed out that the wells are bordered on the west by an AIDS care facility and just across the street on the east by a convalescent home, raising questions about how quickly an evacuation could be mounted in the event of a fire at the wellhead.

The principal speakers were Los Angeles City Council President Herb Wesson, U.S. Congress member Karen Bass, and State Senator Holly Mitchell.

Herb Wesson said he had met with the general managers of City Planning and Building and Safety and the City Attorney and that he had ordered drilling to halt temporarily as of January 15. He was ordering Building and Safety to visit the site twice a day to ensure his order was being carried out. He said he wanted to sponsor a series of community meetings for people to share information about the drill sites. By the next week the drilling derrick had been disassembled and removed. He later introduced a resolution in the City Council calling for a drilling moratorium.

State Senator Holly Mitchell said she would introduce a state ordinance banning fracking and acidizing until environmental impacts could be assessed. Pastor Sauls said his church would provide vans to transport people to Sacramento to testify when the bill came up for a hearing. She added that the community in Baldwin Hills had fought for years to have reasonable conditions placed on the Inglewood Oil Field.

Karen Bass said she would meet with the Environmental Protection Agency in Washington and ask them to evaluate the Freeport operation, and also order a health survey of the neighborhood. She said the survey should cover both West Adams sites and provide an update on the situation in Baldwin Hills.

Freeport’s World Operations

Allenco Energy Inc. is a tiny, virtually one-man, operation based in Signal Hill, a town of 11,000 surrounded on all sides by the city of Long Beach. It is a mom and pop convenience store compared with Freeport-McMoRan, which is more like Walmart. Freeport is a vast global conglomerate with income of $18 billion in 2012 and assets of $35 billion. It operates mainly under the name Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. It began in the 1950s as a major player in world gold and copper mines, went through various reorganizations, and today operates the world’s largest gold mine, the Grasberg, in Indonesia; copper mines in Peru and Chile; and copper and cobalt mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The three West Adams sites are Freeport’s small fry even in the Los Angeles area. Its May 2013 merger with Plains Exploration and Production gave it PXP’s major California holding, the vast  Inglewood Oil Field, the largest urban oil field in the country. This was the site of the 2006 chemical fume breach mentioned earlier.

Freeport’s oil and gas operations have jumped into the high-cost, unconventional sector, with fracking holdings for oil in the Eagle Ford Shale in Texas, and for natural gas in the Haynesville Shale in Arkansas and Louisiana, as well as deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. We don’t know at this time if they intend to use fracking in the Inglewood field. Plains Exploration ran two fracked wells there, but these were shut down before Freeport took possession.

It is also one of the world’s worst polluters. The Political Economy Research Unit at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, ranks Freeport as number 22 in its list of the 100 worst air polluters in the United States. It was one of five corporations nominated in 2012 as the worst company in the world by the Public Eye Award, the NGO counter-event to the annual Davos World Economic Forum, in which Greenpeace is a major influence.

The December 27, 2005, New York Times carried a lengthy report on Freeport’s operations in Indonesia. Freeport is said to have distributed $20 million in bribes to Indonesian military officers to protect its Grasberg mine. It is illegal under both Indonesian and American law to give money to individual members of the Indonesian military, an institution with such an awful human rights record that the U.S. government severed relations with it a dozen years ago. Freeport paid for the college education of dictator Suharto’s children. In return, the military supplemented Freeport’s own security force to protect the Grasberg gold, with the military doing the heavy lifting. Between 1975 and 1997 160 people were killed by the military near the mine property. In March 1996, furious locals stormed the mine property, sacked the offices, and destroyed $3 million of equipment.

The New York Times stated that the Indonesian police paramilitary Mobile Brigade was given more than $200,000 in 2003, adding, “In its 2003 annual human rights report, the State Department said soldiers from the Mobile Brigade ‘continued to commit numerous serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and arbitrary detention.'”

Freeport’s generosity buys not only security but impunity to grossly pollute without oversight or interference. The New York Times described “a spreading soot-colored bruise of almost a billion tons of mine waste that the New Orleans-based company has dumped directly into a jungle river of what had been one of the world’s last untouched landscapes.” A multimillion-dollar study in 2002, ordered by Freeport itself but then kept secret, rated the waters of the rivers that run near the Grasberg mine as “unsuitable for aquatic life.” An Indonesian government internal memorandum from 2000 said the mine waste had killed all life in the nearby rivers and that this was a criminal act under the country’s 1997 environmental law. No action has been taken to stop the dumping.

Insiders at Freeport also revealed to the NYT that their company illegally spies on the emails and telephone calls of environmentalists trying to investigate them.

It should be added, as it affects the prospects of arriving at a resolution of the concerns West Adams residents have with Freeport-McMoRan, that if it plays the jackal in Indonesia, it is a much tamer beast in Los Angeles. In acquiring the Inglewood Oil Field it also came under the regulation of the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District, and makes a prominent point on its websites of promoting the CSD, pointing to its adherence to the CSD’s strict standards as an indication of the company’s good behavior. Moreover, Freeport-McMoRan is one of those companies that works to offset its bad reputation by making generous financial contributions to local communities, schools and organizations.

The Inglewood Oil Field and the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District

At this writing there are restrictions in place at all three of the West Adams oil sites. Allenco is temporarily shut down pending its correction of conditions cited by the EPA and the Los Angeles County Health Department. Freeport-McMoRan’s Jefferson Drill Site’s permits for new drilling and reopening old wells is in abeyance, as Zoning Administrator Sue Chang ruled in September that she would not schedule a new hearing until she was satisfied that there had been adequate noticing given to the community and she has yet to set a new date. At the Murphy Drill Site drilling has been halted.

All of these measures are temporary. Only at Allenco have the conditions been shown to be so deficient as to make it problematic whether the company can afford to correct them. Production from existing oil wells remains in full swing at both the Jefferson and Murphy sites.

It is unlikely in the near term that any official agency is going to ban oil production outright, either at the West Adams sites or at the thousands of other wells in the Los Angeles Basin. The risk for residents is that the momentum developed by the current protests will dissipate with nothing accomplished.

What is missing in Los Angeles – and possibly achievable in the present climate – is adoption of a more rigorous regulatory framework. The precedent for that is the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District. Los Angeles residents concerned about safety from the oil industry among us should become familiar with that history. And in West Adams in particular, two of the three problematic oil operations are owned by the same company that today operates perfectly well under the rules of the Baldwin Hills agreement.

Inglewood Oil Field. Map shows borders of Baldwin Hills Community Standards District

Inglewood Oil Field. Map shows borders of Baldwin Hills Community Standards District

The Inglewood Oil Field covers 1,000 acres of mainly nonresidential land, most of which is in that part of Baldwin Hills that lies in unincorporated Los Angeles County. About 100 acres of the field are in Culver City. Bisected by La Cienega Blvd., the field’s south border is Slauson, elsewhere tracing an uneven line, with the Kenneth Hahn Recreation Area on the east and West Los Angeles College on the west. The first oil well was drilled in 1916 and the first serious commercial production, by Standard Oil of California, began in 1924. At its height there were 1,600 wells.

The residents of Baldwin Hills have had a long and traumatic relationship with the oil field. In December 1963 subsidence from oil extraction at the Inglewood Oil Field  caused the collapse of the Baldwin Hills Reservoir dam. Two hundred and seventy-seven homes were destroyed and five people died. The city and county afterward abandoned the reservoir, fearing that refilling it could lead to a new disaster. It was filled in and became the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area.

Production had largely ceased when Plains Exploration and Production acquired the field at the end of the 1990s. It had been slated to become a park. In 2005 PXP applied to drill six new wells, with plans to expand that into hundreds within a few years. Natalie Regus in an April 28, 2013, post at wattway.org writes that “Drilling  skyrocketed in 2005-06, the most active drilling years in the field’s history. Throughout this period, residents constantly complained that the increased drilling polluted the air, the relentless noise had become unbearable, and noxious fumes emanating from the fields sometimes interrupted their sleep.”

Pumps at the Inglewood Oil Field

Pumps at the Inglewood Oil Field

Things came to a head with the January and February 2006 fume leaks. The County responded by imposing a moratorium. It was able to extend this through mid-2008, but state law prohibited a further extension. The County had few regulations in place to set limits to PXP’s behavior. Under public pressure, Plains Exploration submitted its own proposed regulations, which it called the Baldwin Community Standards District. Its terms had been negotiated with the County Board of Supervisors, in particular with input from then-Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke and from State Senator Mark Ridley-Thomas, who replaced Braithwaite Burke as County Supervisor for the area including Baldwin Hills in December 2008.

The CSD was approved by the Board of Supervisor on October 28, 2008, and went into effect on November 27. Los Angeles County’s Department of Regional Planning has established twenty-eight Community Standards Districts for areas as diverse as East Los Angeles and Topanga Canyon. The one for Baldwin Hills is concerned solely with regulating the Inglewood Oil Field. It contains provisions that seem astonishing as requirements on a private profit-making enterprise, yet the two oil companies that have operated under the CSD have done so with good grace.

The CSD is headed by the Director of the Department of Regional Planning, at the head of a Multiple Agency Coordination Committee (MACC). The MACC is composed of representatives of the county Fire Department, Public Works and Public Health, with invitations to participate to the AQMD, the Regional Water Quality Control Board, the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). This is exactly the kind of sharing of information and oversight responsibility that is absent in Los Angeles. It also provides a structure that can be sued if it fails in its responsibilities.

Here are some of the CSD’s provision, all of which go beyond rules specified for oil drill sites in the Los Angeles Municipal Code:

  • The operator must establish an automated Community Alert Notification System to warn area residents of an emergency at the oil field and test it annually.
  • The operator must maintain logs of odor complaints.
  • Specific actions are required for each of several levels of detected hydrogen sulfide.
  • All grading of land on the property must have prior review by the Regional Planning Director.
  • Ground movement surveys must be conducted every 12 months.
  • Backup alarms on all vehicles must be disabled between 8:00 pm and 8:00 am and other safe measures taken to back vehicles during those hours.
  • Before disturbing any natural habitat the operator must hire a county-approved biologist to survey the area. If damage must take place a restoration specialist must be hired to make a plan for regeneration.
  • An annual vapor test with soil probes of any area on the property in which there are abandoned wells and the results submitted to DOGGR.
  • The company must fund hiring of Environmental Compliance Coordinators, the number to be determined by the County. These will report to the Regional Planning Director and will conduct daily monitoring of conditions on the site.
  • The Public Health Department will employ an independent acoustical engineer to monitor ambient noise levels around the oil field by conducting unannounced tests. If noise levels are too high, no further drilling permits will be issued until this is corrected.
  • All complaints about oil operations received by the company must be relayed to the Environment Compliance Coordinator the same business day and to the Director. The company must maintain a log of complaints and provide it quarterly to the Director, the MACC and to the Community Advisory Panel.
  • The company is responsible for all costs incurred by the County in monitoring the conditions of the CSD.
  • The company must establish an account to pay the Regional Planning Department for all expenses involved in the county’s review and verification of information in reports by the company. The account must have an initial balance of $500,000 and additional deposits of $50,000 must be made if the account is drawn down to $50,000.
  • Violation of any requirement in the CSD rules will, at the discretion of the Direction of Regional Planning, will result in a penalty of not less than $1,000 and not more than $10,000 a day. A special account must be set up with an initial balance of $100,000 to cover these charges.
  • County representatives are to have access to all records and facilities needed for effective enforcement of the CSD terms, and right of entry of any officer or employees of the country whose duties required the inspection of the oil field premises.
  • The Community Advisory Panel is to receive prompt notice of the availability of and on request to receive copies of all monitoring and compliance reports and results, all plans, audits and studies, and any other available documents except materials that cannot be legally disclosed.

These terms are light years ahead of what is available to residents of Los Angles in regard to their local oil operations. Notable for West Adams, these terms are already being complied with by Freeport-McMoRan, and it would seem that extending those that are applicable to their relatively small West Adams sites would not place much burden on the company.

Rather than the end of the process, the CSD formed in 2008 was  the beginning of an  ongoing effort to improve and strengthen regulation of the Inglewood Oil Field. It cannot be overstressed that beyond any of the particulars, probably the most important reform of the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District was the codification of a citizen participation component, the Community Advisory Panel (CAP), which gives community groups an official place in the apparatus from which to monitor the actual practice at the oil field and to make proposals to fine tune the regulations. And also because the CSD gave concerned groups a body  that it could sue to demand standards that would meet the mission assigned to the CSD.

The response of the community groups in Baldwin Hills was to welcome the creation of the CSD, but to hold out for a number of improvements. No sooner had the CSD become official than local residents, joined by a number of nonprofits – notably the Community Health Councils and the Natural Resources Defense Council – filed four class action suits against both PXP and Los Angeles County seeking more stringent rules. The court consolidated these into a single lawsuit. There ensued several years in which the community groups and PXP argued over the final terms of the CSD. A settlement ending the lawsuit was arrived at in July 2011.

The plaintiffs did not win everything they asked for but  did win wording that reduced drilling of new wells, increased air quality monitoring, set more stringent noise limits, and made mandatory previous wording that called for periodic health and environmental assessments. So community involvement and support from the County Board of Supervisors first secured the Community Standards District, a great step forward from the weak or nonexistent regulations that preceded it. The 2011 settlement then built on that foundation. Here are some of the results:

What the Baldwin Hills Community Advisory Panel Added to the Community Standards District Rules

Condensed and adapted from “Comparison of Baldwin Hills Oil Field Restrictions” prepared by the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District’s Community Advisory Panel



Before the CSD

Original CSD

After the 2011 Settlement

Number of new/redrilled wells annually Unlimited 53 (45 new) 30 first year, then 35
Well closures No County obligations Must list in annual plan and have annual vapor testing near closed wells Added incentive to place wells further from residential borders
Fracking No County obligation Must not exceed regulatory limits on injection pressures Company must conduct peer reviewed study of impact on groundwater and subsidence and submit to public agencies
Clean technology No County requirement Must discuss latest equipment and techniques in annual drilling plan Every 5 years County will evaluate latest clean technology and require company to use for new equipment purchases
Well plugs State requires 25′ cement surface plug on abandoned wells Not listed Company must use 150′ surface plug on all newly abandoned wells
Air quality Existing AQMD rules Company must use portable flares to burn any emissions during drilling, monitor for H2S and petroleum hydrocarbons during drilling, develop odor and dust control plans, monitor tank pressures, and used closed systems for produced water and oil LA County will spend up to $250,000 in next year to monitor air quality to assess risk of both acute and chronic exposure to air contaminants from Oil Field
Noise Oil drilling is exempt from County’s standard noise limits. Oil and gas operations exempt between 7 am and 10 pm* No noise above neighborhood baseline by more than 5 dba. Drilling between 6 pm and 8 am must be conducted under Quiet Mode Drilling Plan Noise levels in developed areas between 10 pm and 7 am noise levels no more than 3 dba above nighttime baseline
Noise spikes Exempt No restriction Company must consult County if nighttime operations exceed baseline by 10 dba for more than 15 minutes in any one hour
Health/Environmental Justice study None Every 5 years County may update EIR’s health risk if data from meteorological station warrants County will conduct Community Health Assessment with Environmental Justice component by June 2012, with additional assessments every 5- years.
Oil field cleanup Nuisance law Keep equipment in good appearance. Remove unused equipment. Gives Petitions right of enforcement
* The City of Los Angeles doesn’t seem to set hours with noise limits but does specify that “pumping equipment for such wells shall be muffled or soundproofed so that the noise emanating therefrom, measured from any point on adjacent property, is no more audible than surrounding street traffic.”

This whole package was inherited by Freeport-McMoRan when it took over the Inglewood Oil Field from Plains Exploration in June 2013.

In contrast to the CSD, the existing LA City  ordinances are extraordinarily weak. Los Angeles has many pages of regulations in its Municipal Code establishing oil drilling districts, and the procedures to qualify to be authorized to buy and operate a drill site. The code contains basic provisions prohibiting fumes, smells, or excessive noise from reaching adjacent properties, and on the placement and maintenance of tanks and equipment. The code lacks the kind of detailed rules on air quality or limitations on hours of noisy operation, environmental oversight, access to records, requirements on logging and sharing complaints with a citizen body, contained in the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District.

The Los Angeles Municipal Code does not provide for any periodic review of whether its rules are being followed by this or that oil site. It leaves enforcement and any setting of detailed conditions or standards to individual Zoning Administrators, without any required public hearings or provision that good standards set in one case become generalized. The ZAs do not go out to observe conditions at an oil site first hand, or have the training, knowledge, or resources to draft a document as comprehensive as the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District charter.

The Zoning Administrators only sometimes hold hearings when a company or builder puts before them a proposal for some new construction. It is more difficult for community members to get a hearing for alleged zoning violations or to establish needed standards. And whatever decisions the ZA makes apply to only that one operation. They do not extend to the next operator who commits the same violation a mile away. Even then the records are quickly lost in the city’s vast document mill.


It should be plain that it would be a major advance in the City of Los Angeles to adopt a regulatory structure similar to the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District. Notably, the Los Angeles Department of City Planning’s draft West Adams-Baldwin Hill-Leimert Community Plan cites the CSD as a positive achievement, including its Community Advisory Panel component, whose purpose “is to establish additional regulations, safeguards and controls for activities related to drilling for, and production of oil in the unincorporated portion of the Inglewood Oil Field. A critical element of the CSD is the provision of creating a Community Advisory Panel (CAP) that will ensure continued input from community residents and stakeholders. The goal of the CSD is to ensure that all oil field operations are being performed in the safest manner possible.”

If this citizen oversight of oil operations in Baldwin Hills is a “critical element,” shouldn’t the Department of City Planning consider adding it to the rules governing the vast oil operations in Los Angeles proper?

Urban oil production has been around a long time. It is doubtful that it was ever a safe and healthful decision to mix this dangerous industry with our residential streets. But today the problem has scaled to a new level of risk, through the combination of thousands of half-century-old wells in a matrix under our homes and new methods  of recovery that make large scale use of highly toxic chemicals to free what oil remains.

The Baldwin Hills experiment, now in its sixth year, shows that both sides can fruitfully cooperate. For those who just want to see assurances that their bodies are not being compromised by noxious fumes, as well as those who want to see industrial oil operations removed from our neighborhoods, the establishment of stricter regulation and statutory recognition of a community voice in oil operations would seem to be a step in the right direction. The risk for the West Adams protests is that they will focus only on the moratoriums. When State and local agencies have concluded their investigations and issued orders for a certain number of corrections, everything will return to business as usual – unless there is a newly revamped regulatory regime in Los Angeles. It would be a shame to lose this opportunity to take a major step to better protect our lives and win an ongoing community presence in determining the conduct of this powerful industry.



One Response to “West Adams Oil Blues”

  1. lbstabler on April 19th, 2014 5:28 am

    Outstanding article. There is a great deal of controversy in our community (Hermosa Beach) regarding an upcoming ballot measure to lift a ban on oil drilling enacted 80 years ago. I am going to recommend that Council Members and residents read this to gain a better perspective about what this type of project entails and, if approved, how best it can be managed.

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