“You would never know just by looking at it,” Don Martín said as he looked up at a tall green wall decorated with a row of bushes. “A danger that is hidden in plain sight.”
Beyond the wall is the Murphy Site, an active oil-drilling project operated by E&B Natural Resources that uses chemicals that residents believe are contributing to ominous health problems. For 12 years, Martin has lived alongside dozens of families in a low-income, yellow housing complex with a basketball court and playground.
Located in the West Adams neighborhood of South Los Angeles, the drilling site is surrounded by a home for the elderly and a medical clinic for AIDS patients. Three schools are one block away.
The site is wide open, allowing emissions to float through the air. Martin’s apartment is about 200 feet from the wall. A sign on the door reads: “Warning: This area contains chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer or birth defects or other reproductive harm.”
His wife was diagnosed with brain cancer and his granddaughter had Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I think it’s all related to this sign,” she said.
Her granddaughter was 8 years old when she underwent surgery to remove a tumor on her chest and underwent chemotherapy. She lost her hair, she felt nauseous and she was too tired to play with friends. Martin told her that the oil site was her fault and she asked him why they hadn’t moved. “This is low income, we have nowhere to go,” she said she told him.
He is now in remission, but his wife, his high school sweetheart and wife of 50 years, did not make it. “I sat there and held her hand and watched her die. That’s something I have to deal with for the rest of my life.”
Like Martin and its neighbors, there are 40,000 oil fields around the world with 6 million people living and working nearby, according to a study 2019 which found that oil and gas development is associated with cancer, liver damage, immune deficiency, and neurological symptoms. oil and gas development emits benzene and formaldehyde, both carcinogenic. The drilling also emits methane, a potent greenhouse gas that increases global warming.
Los Angeles is home to the largest urban oil field in the US, and around 1,000 active oil and gas wells are dotted throughout the city, alongside hiking trails, homes, and schools. In Los Angeles County, half a million people live within 1,320 feet of more than 5,000 oil and gas wells, according to a report 2014; and Latino, African American, and Asian American residents are more likely than white residents to live near oil and gas wells. Statewide, people of color made up 92% of the 1.8 million people who lived within a mile of an oil and gas site, the same report found.
Yet California is one of the few oil and gas-producing states with no minimum distance requirements between homes and fossil fuel sites, according to a analysis 2020. Maryland has the highest distance requirements, at 1,000 feet. Pennsylvania requires 500 foot setbacks from unconventional oil and gas wells. Arkansas has the smallest setbacks, at 100 feet. Other states, such as Washington and New York, have banned fracking entirely.
Now, after more than a century of fossil fuel production in California, the tide is turning.
On December 2, the Los Angeles City Council passed an ordinance to phase out oil and gas drilling. In September, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors passed a similar ordinance to phase out drilling in unincorporated areas. In September, Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law, SB-1137, which will take effect on January 1, 2023, banning new oil and gas drilling within 3,200 feet of homes and schools, the largest rollback requirement of any state. The new laws acknowledge that fossil fuel extraction contributes to climate change while harming residents who are primarily Black, Indigenous, and people of color. The Biden administration has also promised money to clean drill sites.
The California Independent Petroleum Association is fighting the state law by gathering signatures for a petition to “Stop the Power Shutoff.” In fact, the petition asks for a referendum in SB-1137, which could slow or stop the law.
Martin is skeptical that the new laws will have an immediate impact. While the city will no longer issue new drilling permits, some companies will have 20 years to shut down.
“We’ll be dead for a long time before they take those sites down,” he said. “If you’re going to do something, stop now.”
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