“Our health is not for sale!”
A southern Los Angeles neighborhood stands up to racist drilling practices
Jordana Sardo
volume 37
issue 4
August 2016

Children walk to their home in Wilmington under the looming smokestacks of a nearby oil refinery. Photo: Jesse Marquez

The discovery of “black gold” in Los Angeles in the 1800s gave rise to an urban landscape where giant drilling rigs cast long shadows over entire neighborhoods. As the oil industry expanded so did the rigs. Successive generations grew up with this poisonous industry next door.

Now, while the city’s population grows, Big Oil resorts to ever more foul methods of extraction, such as “acidizing.”

Acute racial and economic discrimination in city enforcement of environmental laws puts communities of color at ground zero.

Wilmington hit hardest. Nowhere is this untenable, toxic scenario more clear than in Wilmington, in southern Los Angeles, where the vast majority of residents are Latino. Wilmington is home to the third largest oil-producing field in the U.S. It also has one of the highest cancer rates in California. Nosebleeds, asthma, and other respiratory ailments are common.

Environmental justice organizers have said for years that poor people and people of color are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards around the U.S. This is the case in Los Angeles, where 91 percent of those living within a quarter mile of drill sites are people of color.

While the city requires wealthier west-side drilling sites to use cleaner and quieter electric rigs, dirty and noisy diesel rigs dominate South Los Angeles.

One study found that 130 schools, 184 daycare facilities, and 213 senior homes — nearly 628,000 residents — live within a half mile of an active well with significant exposure to toxic air.

Wilmington is also home to the most youthful population in Los Angeles. Children live and play next to oil and gas wells, where foul odors, gas flares, oily dust, noise, diesel truck traffic, and foundation-damaging vibrations are part of daily life.

Angel Ocegueda, a teenager who lives near one of Wilmington’s drilling sites, said, “Change is happening in other communities, but here my lungs feel heavy, my walls are shaking, and my family’s plants are dying. Why are we not investing in my future?”

Sophia Romero, another resident who is 28, suffers from respiratory problems and a chronic cough. Her lung collapsed not long after moving near a drilling site. At times the rotten-egg smell in the tap water makes it undrinkable and family members shower holding their noses.

Constant drilling fills the air around Wilmington with carcinogens. Hydrochloric acid is trucked through and pumped into the ground. Benzene, a common drilling agent, causes neurological illness and cancer.

Environmentalists and residents join forces. But in this living hell a protest movement is taking root, along with the blossoming of young activists who are connecting the struggles of race and environmental justice.

In May, 2,000 people marched on the County Administration building, laying flowers on the steps to commemorate Angelenos who have died of cancer and other illnesses. The march to “break free from fossil fuels” was part of international protests around climate change. But in Los Angeles, a major demand was also to stop neighborhood drilling and enforce laws to protect communities from the industry.

In November 2015, a coalition of youth and environmental groups filed suit against the city to get equal enforcement of state regulations that require a review of all drilling in urban residential areas.

The lawsuit asserts that Los Angeles enables oil companies to bypass the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act. Plans for drilling in low-income neighborhoods are reviewed less stringently than those in wealthier neighborhoods — if at all!

Drilling applications are also granted with racist, reckless disregard for Wilmington residents, many of whom live within 80 feet of rigs with little or no monitoring.

Increasing resistance is bearing fruit. In July, a city official rejected one oil company’s plan to burn off gas near a residential complex. In June, the City Attorney closed a two-acre field owned by the Catholic Archdiocese.

The demand to stop drilling in neighborhoods challenges the profits of a powerful industry. Los Angeles, with the largest oil field in the state, has rightly been called ground zero of California’s climate fight.

In connecting the fight to save polluted neighborhoods with the climate struggle, young activists of color are breathing new life into the environmental movement. Their declaration that “our health is not for sale,” has the potential to raise the fight against global warming to radically new heights.

Send feedback to: jsardo60@gmail.com.

• There are over 5,600 active oil wells in Los Angeles County.

91 percent of residents living within a quarter mile of drilling sites are people of color.

6 of the 10 oil refineries in L.A. County are in the small neighborhood of Wilmington.

• Wilmington has a population of about 54,000 and an area of 9.1 square miles.

This article in Spanish / Este artículo en español

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