What it’s like to have 30 oil & gas wells as neighbors
This story is a part of Faces of Fracking: Stories From the Front Lines of Fracking in California. Click here for the full series.
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The first thing Don Martin asks me is if I want the little picture or the big picture. Big picture, I tell him, and he leads me from the gate of his apartment complex to the driveway of his next-door neighbor.
Martin’s neighbor is Freeport McMoRan, a company worth $30 billion. Freeport’s property beside Martin is just one tiny sliver of an empire that spans continents and includes some of the largest gold and copper mines in the world.
But Freeport is not mining for precious metals next to Martin — this is Los Angeles. Instead, Freeport is drilling for oil. It’s hard to see from the street. If you’re driving through West Adams, a tightly packed residential neighborhood in south central L.A., you’re liable to miss the whole operation.
From the road, all you can see is a strip of manicured lawn, egg-shaped hedges, and a green cement wall. Before a soundwall (which looks like canvas hung several stories from metal I-beams) was erected last year and a drilling rig peaked over the top, most neighbors had no idea this was a facility that includes more than 30 wells, 22 of which are active oil and gas wells. Pipelines snake out from here underground in a matrix that connects two sister sites, each about a mile and a half away in opposite directions. All three sites are owned by Freeport McMoRan Oil and Gas, acquired in 2013 when Freeport gobbled up oil company Plains Exploration.
The Freeport property next to Martin’s apartment is known as the Murphy drill site (named after the Daniel Murphy mansion, which was demolished in 1960 to drill the wells). We can’t see inside the site, and a large sign warns of no trespassing. Another smaller says that, “This area contains chemicals known by the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
“They want to keep us out, but do they keep their chemicals in?” asks Martin.
To answer his question he leads me back into his apartment complex, St. Andrews Gardens, a sprawling arrangement of stucco units each a couple of stories high. We stand in a small parking lot, and even with the drilling tower looming behind him Martin is imposing in stature, with a broad build, bald head, and a white mustache and goatee. But he has a gentle demeanor. As he talks, his words indicate a growing outrage, but his voice never rises.
Other than Freeport’s wall, this plot of asphalt is the only thing that sits between an industrial operation and the open windows of residents’ homes, he says.
The first thing I notice is the smell — it’s the kind that makes your stomach turn and your head feel light — like you’ve taken too many deep breaths next to a gas pump. About 30 yards from us is cluster of kids who have gathered at a play area at the end of the parking lot to ride bikes, shoot hoops, and hang out.
One of the kids playing is Martin’s granddaughter Kiari. She is 11 now and in remission from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She stands shyly next to her grandfather, wearing black frame glasses and a T-shirt that reads, “I’m the boss.”
“We didn’t know if she was going to live or die,” Martin says. Kiari was 8 years old when she first had surgery and dealt with chemo. “That’s how I got involved in this whole thing,” he says. He believes her disease is caused by all of the chemicals wafting from next door. Martin can’t prove that, of course. But he lives here, breathing this air. His neighbors have nosebleeds, skin and eye irritation, headaches, and asthma. His thoughts about Kiari’s illness might seem like a logical conclusion.
“The oil company was not forthcoming,” says Martin. “When I asked about those fumes being emitted — I was told it was steam. Can you imagine? Those toxic fumes say differently. Just piss in my shoe and call it rain!”
The Murphy drill site has been in operation since the 1960s, but residents noticed that some changes began taking place recently. After Freeport took over operations in 2013, drilling for new wells began. With lights and noise coming at them around the clock, community members were worried the company was doing a more intensive type of production, like fracking, that was different from conventional oil and gas activity that had been going on for decades.
Short for hydraulic fracturing, fracking is a favored industry technique to wring more oil and gas out of the ground. And it’s come under close scrutiny in many places across the country because of complaints of air pollution, water contamination, and health problems.
Fracking is why I tracked Martin down. For the last few years I’ve been writing about the impacts of fracking on communities. I’d heard talk that fracking was happening not just in the boomtowns of rural North Dakota, but in the city of Los Angeles. What I didn’t realize until I visited West Adams is that another industry technique similar to fracking is less talked about, but more common, and maybe even more concerning for folks like Martin and his neighbors.
A 13-year-old’s plea to the Pope
Less than two miles from Martin’s neighborhood is another well site, this one owned by Allenco Energy Company, a puny operation in comparison to Freeport. But Allenco taps the same oil field — Las Cienegas — as the Murphy site. The wells are located in the University Park neighborhood, about a half-mile from the campus of the University of Southern California.
In 2010, neighbors began logging complaints with city agencies regarding Allenco’s operation after residents endured what they described as horrible odors, and experienced headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, and respiratory problems. Over the course of nearly four years, more than 250 complaints were filed. It wasn’t until federal investigators from the Environmental Protection Agency did a site visit and got sick themselves in November 2013, that action was taken to temporarily halt the operation.
In an investigation, the Los Angeles Times found that the company had boosted production by 400 percent. Allenco had also put idle wells back into production using acid stimulation — also known as acidizing — the injection of acids underground to break up minerals and rocks that block the flow of oil and gas. The process is similar to fracking, but uses different chemicals, and is sometimes done at high pressure. Increasing the pressure can increase the risk if something goes awry. The Allenco site was found to be dangerously run, with residents likely being exposed to low levels of pollutants such as hydrogen sulfide over long periods of time. Just the daily operations of the site was enough to sicken neighbors.
Nallei Cobo, a 13-year-old resident who lives across the street from the Allenco site, sent an impassioned plea to Pope Francis telling him that for four years she had experienced nosebleeds, stomach pains, heart problems, and headaches. Even though the site is temporarily shut down, she said, she worries every day that it will reopen.
Why was the Pope her target? The well site is leased to Allenco by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It sits next to the campus of Mount St. Mary’s on land donated to the Catholic Church by the widow of Edward Doheny. Coincidentally, Doheny is the father of L.A.’s oil industry, the first to strike it rich here, hitting the big time in the Los Angeles City Oil Field in 1892 and becoming the city’s first oil tycoon and one of the country’s wealthiest men.
The Los Angeles City Oilfield, the first urban oil field, and the longest running here, is all but exhausted now. The last remaining active oil well burped a meager four barrels a day on average last year in trendy Westlake. But the oil industry continues in other fields in L.A. — with 5,000 wells still in use. Many are hiding in plain sight, behind malls, in golf courses, on the grounds of the Beverly Hills High School. The industry is staying afloat here with help from the high price of oil, which makes using techniques like acidizing to revive old wells economically viable. But what does that mean for the health of people who live around these sites, like Martin, his granddaughter Kiari, and 13-year-old Nallei?
The big picture
The day I visit Martin in mid-July, the neighborhood is buzzing over the fact that another Freeport well site linked to the Murphy, just a mile and a half away in Jefferson Park, may be acidizing. Neighbors photographed Halliburton trucks arriving at that site and reported that the trucks were marked with the numbers 3264 for “corrosive liquid, acid” or 1789 for hydrochloric or muriatic acid.
In 2013, Freeport applied for permits to re-drill two older wells and drill a new well for wastewater injection there. It included plans to use 24,619 pounds of acid.
Alina Evans was a first year student at USC last year when she moved in next to the Jefferson well site. She had thought the drilling rig was a cell tower. Within weeks she realized she was living next to an active oil and gas operation. “There were bright lights all the time, and the smell was terrible,” she said. “They were drilling 50 feet from my window. I could see the Halliburton trucks. There were hazardous material signs. The workers had covered suits — they were wearing protection. But I’m up here in my house with no protection. It was scary.”
Hydrochloric acid can be risky stuff: The EPA warns that if inhaled, it can cause “eye, nose, and respiratory tract irritation and inflammation and pulmonary edema,” which causes your lungs fill up with fluid, making breathing difficult.
Fumes from a well site using this material near your home could be dangerous. And an accident at a facility using it could be catastrophic. In July a fracking operation in rural Oklahoma spilled 20,000 gallons of hydrochloric acid. What if that had happened in a densely packed urban area?
This, Martin tells me, is the big picture. If something occurred at the Murphy site next to his home, he believes that not just his neighbors in St. Andrews Gardens would be at risk, but potentially thousands of people who live in close proximity.
I’ve visited oil and gas wells all across the country, but I’d never seen one in an urban area before where the company was using high intensity production methods like acidizing — and it’s down-right scary.
Donna Ann Ward lives five blocks from Martin and the Murphy drill site and helped start the community group CoWatchingOil LA. She’s been one of the main community watchdogs in the neighborhood. With financial support from Holman United Methodist Church a few blocks away, her group has set up a video camera on the roof of a building that overlooks the Murphy site.
Ward leads me up there, through a small metal ladder and out a hatch onto the roof. From here we can see what everyone else walking by on the road cannot: the full length of the drilling rig and a cement lot with green tanks and pipes. Most of what happens here, though, takes place underground — metal grates in the cement reveal ladders that lead to well cellars.
From the roof we have a perfect view of Martin’s ‘big picture.’ Who’s at risk here? Ward points all around. There are apartment buildings where people live on government subsidies, low-income housing for seniors, a convalescent home, a health clinic for HIV positive people (which is the roof we’re standing on), a home for nuns (this drilling site is leased from the Archdiocese as well), and, just a few blocks away, several schools.
This area contains not just a dense population, but a vulnerable one.
That’s one of the reasons that Martin decided to speak out about his concerns — he has even traveled to Sacramento to address state legislators on the issue.
“What I gathered is that they don’t want to end oil production operations because of the jobs involved,” he says. “If you close down this facility, you take away jobs. It’s all about jobs, jobs, jobs. I’ve seen people who can get other jobs, but I’ve not seen anyone yet who can get another life. So what, they become unemployed? At least my children and grandchildren are alive to see another day, to perhaps create other jobs with clean energy.”
Lack of transparency
Evans, the USC student who moved in next to the Jefferson well site, knew what was happening at the drilling site in her neighborhood because she happened to have a bird’s-eye view from her window. But for most people what happens inside the walled compounds is a mystery — they are a fiefdom all to themselves.
The city of Los Angeles doesn’t have one designated body to oversee all oil and gas activities. West Adams resident and UCLA professor Michael Salman found out that the city used to have a petroleum administrator, which is required by the city’s administrative code — but the position was vacated in the early 1990s when production was at a low, and has never been filled again.
Only in the last year has anyone even attempted to shed light on the subject.
Beginning in June 2013, the South Coast Air Quality Monitoring District (AQMD) required that companies report whether they were hydraulic fracturing, acidizing, or gravel packing (another practice similar to hydraulic fracturing). This was a first — it had never been required before in L.A. or anywhere in the state of California.
After a year of gathering data, AQMD found that in the Los Angeles Basin, which includes L.A. and Orange Counties, there had been 14 occurrences of hydraulic fracturing, 149 occurrences of gravel packing, and 314 occurrences of acidizing. The agency found that companies used 44 different toxic chemicals more than 5,000 times for a grand total of 45 million pounds of chemicals used in the L.A. Basin in a single year. Three of the wells that were acidized were at the Jefferson site next to Evans’ house.
The results provide the first look into some of the chemicals that are being used, which is a crucial first step in determining if there are any health impacts. But it is only a tiny sliver of what should be studied.
Many companies are operating on leases granted decades ago, and no new permitting or requirements are needed if they begin fracking or acidizing. Since 1970 the state has required an in-depth environmental assessment known as CEQA (California Environmental Quality Act), which requires state and local agencies to identify environmental impacts of their actions and any proposed projects. It’s unclear if it’s ever been required for wells in L.A.
Salman knows that it was indeed never required for the Murphy site. He’s checked the records back to the well site’s beginning. The problem, he explains, is that “during 1970 to the present the number of wells has more than doubled,” and no consideration has ever been given to see how it would affect neighboring residents.
The long fight ahead
Now Freeport is also seeking to expand the operation outside the bounds of the existing compound to add a new gas waste incinerator. This doesn’t sit well with neighbors, especially since Freeport has already had several violations in its short tenure, ranging from zoning abuses to health infractions. AQMD found a methane leak at 400 times the allowable limit in January. And just days later the company was cited for having a torn water cover that allowed excessive levels of volatile organic compounds to escape.
“We were told it will result in a fine, but that due to budget cuts and lawyer overload, it can take AQMD’s legal department up to three years to wrap it up,” Ward says.
Pastor Kelvin Sauls, who heads the Holman United Methodist Church and has helped support the community in its fight against Freeport, says that the company has shown disrespect, disregard, and deception. Neighbors he said, “have been treated as persona non grata — treated as if they are invisible. And there is a sheer disregard for city protocols and policies. They’ve violated I don’t know how many ordinances and processes.”
The threats of fracking or acidizing aside, simply operating conventional oil and gas wells in such volume in a dense urban neighborhood may simply be no longer tenable. And this is the even bigger picture: As long as oil and gas remain primary sources of energy, we face the reality of having to choose between filling our tanks and protecting our communities.
In February, the Los Angeles City Council voted 10-to-1 to prohibit fracking and other unconventional drilling practices. The city attorney’s office was tasked with drafting an ordinance but the exact language has yet to be revealed, and it’s unclear if practices like acidizing will be included. If it’s only fracking, then many communities where acidizing takes place will still be at risk, and others may still be impacted from threats from poorly run conventional operations as well.
So West Adams residents continue to fight what is likely to be a long battle. “It’s draining, it’s time consuming, it’s confusing,” admits Ward. “But it’s a worthy endeavor; to stand on the sideline is not something the people that I know are comfortable with.”
For Martin, it’s intensely personal. “Some people are into saving the spotted owl,” he says. “Some people are into saving the whales. I’m in to saving our babies. That’s, to me, what this is all about.”