Just Six Feet Away: Oil Drill Site May Threaten Community Safety

For decades, the city of Los Angeles let a drill site operate just six feet away from homes

At 8:30 a.m., Hamilton Yang sat in his bed, wide awake. He works from home, and the alarm that was supposed to wake him wouldn't go off for another hour. But there was no confusion as to why he was up earlier than expected. For him and his wife Amanda, this has become routine.

"I've been woken up by the sound of metal clanging pipes and large diesel engine sounds," Yang said. "And this shit continues the whole day."

The Yangs live across the street from an active oil drill site in West Adams. They, and other neighbors, say the site's operations regularly disrupt everyday life.

Residents in the area complain of loud clanging sounds, unreasonable traffic congestion, putrid smells and potentially hazardous chemical use.

"It's incredibly frustrating because I would hope that any place I would live would be safe," Corissa Pacillas Smith said. She and her husband Nathan live across the street from the drill site, upstairs from the Yang family.

But these couples are not the closest to the problem, geographically speaking. Some people, including USC students, live in homes just six feet away from the border of the drill site. Those housing units rest inside an area designated by the city as a "buffer," which, according to city documents and officials, was originally intended to serve as a protective barrier for nearby residents.

But it may not be serving its purpose, residents said, if people are being used as human shields.

The Jefferson Drill Site

Residents are asking the city of Los Angeles to intervene. A community group, Redeemer Community Partnership, or RCP, filed a nuisance abatement petition with the city's Department of City Planning in June 2016. The department held a public hearing on the petition in January, with a decision from a zoning administrator expected within the next few months.

The nuisance abatement process isn't typically used to address oil drilling sites—it's more commonly used to address vacant buildings or businesses improperly selling alcohol.

"We thought we would use this method on the drilling site because it's clearly causing a lot of harm to people around it," Niki Wong, a neighbor and lead community organizer of RCP, said.

To rectify that harm, community members are asking the city to impose more restrictions on the drilling operation. They want the city to make the oil company, Sentinel Peak Resources, enclose the oil extraction operations and switch to less-polluting electric equipment, rather than the diesel-powered equipment they use now, according to the petition filed with the planning department.

Residents also want the city to provide air-quality monitoring at the site that's more accessible to residents. The petition further alleges that the way the oil drilling operation runs is violating the zoning conditions set within its land use permits.

The site was first established in 1965, when the city allowed Union Oil Company of California to drill two exploratory oil wells on the mostly vacant two-acre lot.

The neighborhood was already residential when the drill site was approved, and in the years since it has grown to become one of the city's most densely-populated neighborhoods, according to data from the Los Angeles Times. The site has always been surrounded by homes and businesses and lies just a 10-minute walk from the Engemann Student Health Center at USC.

Since the 1990s, the site has changed owners several times, including Nuevo Energy Company, Brown PXP, Plains Exploration Production Company, and Freeport McMoRan Oil and Gas. Recently, Freeport McMoRan sold its Southern California properties, including the Jefferson site, to Sentinel Peak Resources, which took over operations at the beginning of 2017.

More Than a Nuisance

Living next to an active oil drilling site can be disruptive, to say the least.

Large trucks transporting chemicals and other equipment regularly block the narrow street, residents say. Loud noises echo from the site itself, often waking up or distracting neighbors. Nauseating odors, which can be found at almost any oil drill site, invade the surrounding air and permeate homes. Large, bright lights illuminate the area at night, often flooding into neighboring windows.

However, residents who have lived near the drill site for more than a year said those nuisances are just the beginning.

"When they're using a lot of diesel fumes and diesel fuel with the equipment, I will have a direct correlation of having a headache," Pacillas Smith said.

She's not alone.

"When I come to this site… I'll get a sore throat, I'll get headaches," Wong said. "If I'm here long enough, sometimes I'll start feeling nauseated."

"I'm walking by and I get hit by this wave of chemical fumes and suddenly I'm having trouble breathing," Amanda Yang said. "I'm asthmatic, so I can feel my chest tighten up."

Nearby residents said health risks are their primary concern living so close to an active oil drill site. Jill Johnston, who works for the Division of Environmental Health at the USC Keck School of Medicine, said they have reason to be concerned.

"Any time you're going to be extracting oil or natural gas from underground, you release a lot of chemicals, particularly airborne chemicals that will impact neighbors that are nearby," Johnston said.

One of the most common chemicals released during the process of oil extraction is hydrogen sulfide. The compound, known for its distinct rotten egg smell, can affect the respiratory system and cause other health issues, Johnston said.

The drill site's former owner, Freeport McMoRan, was aware of the properties of hydrogen sulfide. In 2016, residents noticed large plastic barrels of a liquid labeled "CHEMCO Odor Control Jasmine" being transported to and sprayed inside the drill site. CHEMCO's website says Odor Control is designed to eliminate the smell of hydrogen sulfide.

The mixture poses its own health risks to nearby residents. Odor Control Jasmine can cause irritation to the eyes, skin and nose, as well as more serious risks, according to the product's material safety data sheet.

"Some of the components of this odor control that is used are also associated with endocrine disruption, with mimicking and disrupting the hormone systems of people who are exposed to it," Johnston said. She further explained that endocrine disruption could cause problems with pregnancy.

That's a serious threat for the Yang and Pacillas Smith families. Both couples said they would like to have a child but are afraid of the negative health effects that could come from living so close to potentially dangerous oil drilling operations.

"I do want to have a family, but I don't want to set them up for all of these health problems that could come from living across from the site," Amanda Yang said. "It's infuriating because it's something that no one should have to be concerned about when it comes to starting a family."

Annenberg Media reached out to both Freeport McMoRan, the former owner of the drill site, and Sentinel Peak, the current owner. Sentinel Peak referred us to Sabrina Lockhart, a representative from the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents both oil companies.

The drilling site operates under many restrictions to maintain safety for neighboring residents, Lockhart said. "There are a number of safeguards in place to ensure that operations maintain their safety and efficiency."

But residents said it's not enough for Sentinel Peak and Freeport McMoRan to just follow basic guidelines set by the city and state. Neighbors are looking for more robust action and intervention.

"We need to have accountability and shed light on what's happening here because this is affecting our quality of life," Amanda Yang said. "I really hope that city officials stand up and take notice of that."

The Buffer Zone

When the city's planning department first approved the drill site in 1965, it imposed a number of conditions on its operation, including the creation of what planning documents call a "buffer."

At the time, Union Oil owned the vacant lot that would become the site, along with the adjacent lots on the northern side. Those lots were not vacant—there were houses on them. In approving the site, the city required Union Oil to retain ownership of those lots as a buffer between the "proposed [drilling] activities and the residential development to the north in the same block."

Buffers like this one are usually intended to provide a level of safety for the community, according to the city's petroleum administrator, Uduak-Joe Ntuk. As the petroleum administrator, Ntuk is tasked with evaluating the safety and efficiency of drill sites in Los Angeles. He assumed his position in October 2016.

"It's like a fire in the chimney in your house," Ntuk said. "You wouldn't necessarily sit immediately adjacent to it because you'd probably get burned, but you have some distance away so that it's safe."

But in the 1990s the Department of City Planning made a change to the buffer condition when then-owner Nuevo Energy filed an application with the city to sell the lots identified as a buffer. The Planning Department approved the sale, saying the requirement that the lots be owned by the same company as the site was "incidental," and the intent of the buffer would "be served no matter the ownership of the property."

The approval documents also said the existing houses on the buffer properties were in a state of disrepair, and the new owner planned to renovate them "with the further possible intent of using the properties for student housing" associated with USC.

"Now people have become human shields," Wong said, "and predominantly they are USC students."

A resident who lives in one of the houses in the buffer agreed to speak off the record. She said her roommates are USC students, and she graduated in 2016.

A History of Complaints

The petition before the Department of City Planning is not the first time residents have raised concerns about the drill site. Neighbors have been complaining about the operations there for years.

They have called in numerous odor complaints to the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state regulatory agency responsible for monitoring air quality in LA County and other parts of Southern California.

"I'll call them and I'll say 'they're operating. This is really loud and I can smell stuff. Can you please come take a look?'" Hamilton said. "[AQMD inspectors] often don't come for a day or two, and by then, [the drilling company] is not operating anymore."

The AQMD sends inspectors to investigate complaints once they've received six or more about a specific area, a spokesperson with the AQMD said. They respond as soon as possible given their resources and the distance from their headquarters in Diamond Bar, more than an hour away in heavy traffic, to the source of the complaints, the spokesperson said, so a delay of one day would be possible.

"That's not good enough," Hamilton Yang said. "If I tell you there's a fire you're not going to say 'I'll check on it in a day or two.'"

From 2010 through 2014, the AQMD received 15 odor complaints related to the drill site, according to a staff report. In that time, the AQMD only cited the drilling company with notices of violations twice, both times for exceeding acceptable emissions levels.

Fifteen more complaints were filed in 2016 alone, according to information from a public records request.

The city of Los Angeles has also heard complaints from neighbors before.

In July 2013, Freeport McMoRan filed an application with the city to re-drill two wells and drill a new well on the site, with a request that drilling be allowed 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for three months. Community members spoke out against the application at a public hearing and sent a letter to the city asking that the application be denied.

The zoning administrator assigned to the case decided it should be rescheduled, because Freeport McMoRan failed to give the community the required amount of notice about the public hearing. Eventually, Freeport McMoRan withdrew its application altogether.

From 2006 to 2008, the city approved three similar re-drilling requests by the oil company. The public hearing for the third application was waived at the company's request, citing a lack of complaints from constituents living in the immediate vicinity of the site.

In the past two years, residents have also held protests and joined a lawsuit against the city filed by other South LA communities affected by oil drilling.

Allegations of Unfair Treatment

Neighboring residents said they feel as though the city has ignored their concerns and complaints. They allege their community is being overlooked because of its demographics.

"This city overlooks neighborhoods that are low-income, ethnic minorities, which the majority of my neighbors are," Amanda Yang said.

The Historic West Adams neighborhood is more than 94 percent non-white, according to 2010 census data compiled by Almanac Research.

But whiter areas of Los Angeles may not suffer from that same oversight, residents said.

At least two active oil drill sites in West LA are enclosed by large, building-like structures. The sites—one located at 1353 S. Spaulding Ave., and another situated at 9101 W. Pico Blvd.—are concealed and camouflaged to blend into the surrounding environment and mitigate nuisance issues. The neighborhoods around them are nearly 80 percent white, according to the 2010 census data.

Residents neighboring the Jefferson Drill Site are frustrated that the city hasn't taken the same action to enclose the site near their homes. They see a connection between wealth in an area and response from city officials.

"There are other parts of Los Angeles where there's more money, more resources, where maybe the folks who live there have a higher level of education," Pacillas Smith said. "When those areas advocate, change happens."

The Department of City Planning said the demographics of neighborhoods have no impact on how seriously it takes complaints. In a statement, the department said "complaints received about a specific drill site are addressed with the utmost attention," regardless of location.

Residents near the Jefferson drill site say otherwise.

"I think we have been overlooked by the city," Hamilton Yang said. "I don't think there has been due diligence done on this site, the way that it's operated and what it's been doing."

The City Considers a Change

However, the residents of South LA are hopeful that change is near.

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who since July 2015 has represented the district including the Jefferson Drill Site, has urged the city to reassess the operation and regulation of the site.

"I believe the city needs to reexamine the city requirements at the site," Harris-Dawson said. "I welcome the Planning Department taking a hard look and responding to the issues put forward by residents."

The city also recently appointed Uduak-Joe Ntuk as the city's petroleum administrator within the Department of Public Works.

"We're looking at things the right way and pooling resources … to make sure that we're administering this in a modern, 21st-century approach," Ntuk said.

Theodore Irving, a zoning administrator with the planning department's Zoning Administration Division, is currently reviewing the petition filed by RCP, along with complaints from the community and a plan approval submitted by the drilling company. Irving is expected to deliver a decision on whether the drill site is violating the conditions of its zoning and requires additional restrictions within a few months. He did not respond to Annenberg Media's request for comment.

Sentinel Peak is also conducting its own review of the site's operations. However, in a letter sent from the company to the City of Los Angeles' zoning division, Sentinel Peak expressed its disapproval of the city holding a hearing for residents to voice their complaints.

"We are rather taken aback that operational activities at this facility have merited this week's hearing," the letter said, "and we do not believe that the preparation of plan approval is justified."

Even amid numerous investigations and reviews, some residents close to the drill site worry their community will continue to be overlooked.

"I feel like we're not being taken seriously," Pacillas Smith said, "which is sad because it's our lives."

Reach Staff Reporter Brad Streicher and Executive Producer Sam Bergum here and here, respectively.