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. Note proximity to houses next door.
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.
Freeport's World Operations
The Inglewood Oil Field and the Baldwin Hills Community Standards District
What the Baldwin Hills Community Advisory Panel Added to the Community Standards District Rules