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After Porter Ranch, Los Angeles’ Low-Income Communities Want Environmental Justice Too

An oil pump runs near homes, Wednesday, July 16, 2014, in the Wilmington area of Los Angeles. The Environmental Protection Agency is coming to one of the nation's largest petroleum-producing areas to hold public hearings on a proposal aimed at reducing toxic air pollution from California to Texas through tough new controls on oil refineries.

CREDIT: AP/Mark J. Terrill

Until October 2015, Porter Ranch was a typical affluent suburban neighborhood.  Homes cost between $400,000 and over a million dollars. These homes line the quiet streets of gated communities, and come with beautiful views of the foothills.

However, about a mile away from Porter Ranch is the Aliso Canyon natural gas storage facility, which suddenly interrupted tranquil suburban life in late October 2015, when methane gas began spewing from the site.

The leak continued until February 11, 2016, leaving irrevocable damage in its wake. A whopping total of 96,000 metric tons of methane were released into the atmosphere.

While methane is nontoxic and odorless, mercaptan, a chemical found in methane, produces a sickening sulfuric smell. Many experienced symptoms of vomiting, rashes, headaches, dizziness, and bloody noses. Over 4,000 households evacuated, and children relocated to new schools.  Residents also worried about exposure to benzene, a component of natural gas known to cause leukemia.

The large-scale disaster was met with a large-scale response. The city ordered the gas company to provide temporary housing for residents. Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency, and visited Porter Ranch to meet with residents. There could be up to 1,000 pending lawsuits by residents, who are calling for the entire facility to be entirely shut down—an idea supported by state commissioners.

porter-ranch-gas-leak-effectsAs the largest methane leak in U.S. history, the Porter Ranch disaster was undoubtedly unique in its size and suddenness, and deserved a swift and substantial response. However, residents who live right next to some of the 5,000 active drilling sites in Los Angeles County—which are disproportionately placed in low-income communities of color—have dealt with similar issues for years.

Oil Drills in the Backyard 

Nearly 50 miles south of Porter Ranch, past Hollywood, downtown Los Angeles, and Compton, lies the city of Wilmington. While a drive through Porter Ranch yields views of green hills and gated communities, visitors to Wilmington are immediately greeted with the site of large oil drills.

In Los Angeles’ dense, working-class, and non-white neighborhoods, such as Wilmington and South Los Angeles, many residents must deal with oil drilling right in their backyardsWilmington’s population is primarily Latino; Jefferson Park, a South L.A. neighborhood impacted by drilling, is 90 percent black or Latino. This is in stark contrast to Porter Ranch, where the majority of the population is white and the median household income more than triples that of Wilmington and Jefferson Park.

Oil operations look a lot different in Wilmington and Jefferson Park than they do in wealthier communities; drilling sites are often adjacent to residential areas. In Jefferson Park, a drilling site owned by AllenCo was right across the street from homes. Residents filed hundreds of complaints about odors, nausea, body spasms, and respiratory illnesses, and the site finally closed in 2013, after EPA officials themselves became sick while investigating the site.

demographic-infographicIn Wilmington, wells are on average just 139 feet from sensitive locations like homes and parks.

“Wilmington is just such a huge visual of everything. There are pumping drills right behind homes. [Oil drilling] is definitely very visible in Wilmington, not as much in other communities,” said Ashley Hernandez, a 23-year-old Wilmington resident and community activist with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE).

Oil moved into Wilmington over a decade ago, when Warren E&P Inc., an energy company, was allowed to drill up to 540 wells and produce up to 5,000 barrels of oil a day on a Wilmington site. Homes and a baseball field lined the site, directly exposing residents.

In the years since, residents have dealt with many of the same symptoms faced by residents of Porter Ranch. However, while Porter Ranch residents only dealt with symptoms for a short period of time, Wilmington residents have faced symptoms for over ten years, with no evacuations or government response.

“There’s three refineries just near my neighborhood, and some of them are right next to the elementary schools so they affect children. My little brother has developed asthma and there’s other health impacts for community members,” said Isis Reyes, a 16-year-old Wilmington high school student and community activist.

Residents have experienced nosebleeds, asthma, headaches, and sore throats due to drilling operations. Foul odors similar to those in Porter Ranch plague the neighborhood.

“After being here for so long you almost become desensitized – I am now used to the smell because this is my home,” said Ashley.

Over time, this long-term exposure to oil operations causes extreme consequences. According to a recent assessment, the environmental risks of developing cancer are twice as high in communities near the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach (such as Wilmington) than they are in Porter Ranch.

Milton Hernandez-Nimatuj, Youth Program Coordinator for CBE, has seen these effects personally. After two family members were diagnosed with cancer in spite of the fact that his family had no prior history, he realized how oil drilling was hurting his community.

“I saw that what was happening in my family was also happening in my community, they’re reflections of each other. I then made the connection that what’s happening in our surroundings is affecting each of our families,” he explained.

‘Our problem too’

In Wilmington and South Los Angeles, the urgent response to Porter Ranch has left residents wondering when they’ll get their own response.  Furthermore, the correlation between demographic differences and levels of response points towards discrimination.

“Our schools, churches, parks, are all right next to these sites, so the fact that we aren’t being heard and the spotlight isn’t being put on makes us wonder what is it going to take. It is completely wrong to have so many hardworking people exposed to this institutionalized racism,” said Hernandez.

Other community activists, like 18-year-old Angel Rincon, are frustrated with the difference in government response between Porter Ranch and Wilmington.

“Why is the governor going to people’s homes in Porter Ranch but has never visited us or looked at what’s going on in our neighborhood?” Rincon asked.

Milton added, “There’s a difference in how they’re treating our communities and how they’re treating Porter Ranch. It’s great that they have residents that are fighting for justice, but it is frustrating when our elected officials aren’t paying attention to us as well.”

Wilmington activists aren’t upset at Porter Ranch; they just hope that the disaster brings attention to the environmental issues faced by their own community.

Hernandez-Nimatuj hopes that Porter Ranch demonstrates that environmental racism is a serious issue, and that local governments will consider treating emergency situations in Wilmington with the same diligence they used with Porter Ranch.

He explained, “Hopefully our government can self-reflect with the fact that people from low-income communities have been dealing with these issues for years, so we’re seeing that environmental racism is a real thing. The government is protecting [Porter Ranch residents’] well-being, while we have to fight our own government as well as corporations to protect ourselves.”

Youth of Los Angeles vs. City of Los Angeles

If Los Angeles’ government hasn’t self-reflected yet on the environmental racism present within its boundaries, it will be forced too soon—a group of Los Angeles youth recently sued the city for racially discriminatory oil drilling permitting.

The lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court by Youth for Environmental Justice, South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, and the Center for Biological Diversity. It alleges a discriminatory pattern of weaker environmental protections for drill sites in areas with a majority of people of color. Porter Ranch providing a major example for the case.

According to Gladys Limon, a staff attorney with CBE, in spite of the fact that residents in South L.A. and Wilmington are subjected to similar emissions as Porter Ranch, “those residents have not had similar hearings, no one has offered relocation assistance.”

“There’s been no medical monitoring and no one has called into question the very practice of neighborhood drilling.”

The case is entirely driven by young people, like Isis Reyes. Reyes considers the case to be the “best thing I’ve ever done, because I’m able to sue the city because they continue to let oil companies drill in our backyard.”

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