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What is a Sacrifice Zone? The Environmental Racism of Oil Drilling in L.A.

An oil rig stands at a site while a plane lands in the distance.
An oil rig extracts petroleum while a plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport. Los Angeles is America's biggest urban oil field, with wells sited disproportionately in low-income communities and communities of color. | David McNew / Getty Images
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One day in 2010, when Nalleli Cobo was nine years old, she came home with her big sister from a yoga class and realized something was wrong. The air around the University Park apartment where she lived with her mother, two siblings, grandmother and great grandparents, near downtown L.A., smelled of guava. It was overpowering. To avoid it, her family slept crammed together in one bedroom, with all the windows closed and an air purifier running. But the smell didn’t go away; sometimes guava, sometimes cherries, sometimes rotten eggs, the family could get no relief for about a week.

Around that time, Cobo’s health started to change. She got nosebleeds, sometimes so bad that she would have to sleep sitting up so as not to choke on her own blood. She developed body spasms so severe that her mom would sometimes have to carry her. She started using a monitor for heart palpitations. Cobo, her mother and grandmother all developed asthma.

At first, the family was confused. Was it a leak in the building? They contacted Esperanza, the nonprofit that owns the affordable housing complex where they lived. But the problem wasn’t in the building, Esperanza said; it was just across the road at the AllenCo oil well. Cobo didn’t know it at the time, but her apartment was only 30 feet away from an oil drilling site containing 21 wells. She remembers seeing the tall gates around the site as a child and imagining that it was a secret amusement park. But in reality, chemicals leaking from the drill site were the source of the guava smell — and her family’s health problems.

Los Angeles is America’s biggest urban oil field, and 580,000 Angelenos like Cobo live within a quarter mile of a well. Wells are sited in extreme proximity to homes, schools and hospitals, throughout the city and throughout California, with disproportionate impacts on low income communities and communities of color. Living close to oil wells comes with increased exposure to dangerous pollutants, including PM2.5, volatile organic compounds, ozone and more. Studies have linked residential drilling to a swath of negative health effects, including preterm birth, asthma, cancer and heart problems. The result is a health nightmare for those living next door: "environmental racism at hand," said Cobo.

an oil rig in front of homes
A rig extracts oil right alongside a row of homes in Culver City, which this past summer voted to phase out oil wells within its borders by July 2026 . Living close to oil wells comes with increased exposure to dangerous pollutants. | Gabriel Bouys / AFP via Getty Images

The millions of Californians living on the border of oil extraction sites occupy what scholar Robert Bullard might call "sacrifice zones." It’s a term used in the environmental justice context to mean places where residents are exposed to disproportionately high levels of toxic contamination in the air, water and soil.

The phrase was first used during the Cold War to designate "National Sacrifice Zones" — areas that are radioactively contaminated due to uranium mining for nuclear weapons. In 1973, it was recycled in a report by the National Academy of Sciences with reference to the remediation of landscapes heavily impacted by coal mining. From there, the concept of sacrifice zones started to take hold, and made its way to the national press; a 1975 article from the Washington Post called the term a "watchword and a rallying cry" for communities heavily impacted by coal. A decade later, by 1987, the term was being applied to areas polluted by the petrochemical industry in Louisiana.

The concept of "sacrifice zones" ties in with the long struggle for environmental justice in the United States, led by communities of color. Environmental racism was first thrust to the fore of the broader American consciousness in the 1980s; in 1982, hundreds of civil rights leaders and community members were arrested in Warren County, North Carolina, for protesting the construction of a toxic waste landfill in a low-income, predominantly Black community. The Warren County protests were one of the first nationally-recognized environmental justice movements, launching a wave of scholarship and activism highlighting the impacts of toxic waste.

Protesters Marching Against Waste Dump
Protesters march against construction of a toxic waste landfill in a low-income, predominantly Black community in Warren County, NC. The Warren County protests were one of the first nationally-recognized environmental justice movements. | Bettmann / Getty Images

In 1987, Toxic Waste and Race became the first nationwide study to connect waste and race on a national scale, finding that 60 percent of Black and Hispanic Americans lived in a community impacted by toxic waste. The study showed that race was the most significant factor associated with the siting of hazardous waste—more significant than income. Today, understandings of "sacrifice zones" extend far beyond toxic waste to include air pollution, water contamination and access, and even the impacts of climate change.

In 1990, Bullard — widely considered the father of the environmental justice movement — wrote Dumping in Dixie, where he summarized the core question at the heart of the movement: "How are the benefits and burdens of environmental reform distributed? Who gets what, where, and why?"

Despite the important contributions of the environmental justice movement, Laura Pulido, professor of Geography at University of Oregon, wrote in 2015 that, "it is questionable if the environments of vulnerable communities have actually improved [...] there is compelling evidence that environmental disparities between white and nonwhite communities, what I call the environmental racism gap, have not diminished and that the situation may have worsened." This persisting environmental racism, she argues, is a form of "state-sanctioned violence" against the communities impacted.

Indeed, in 2021, environmental racism and injustice are still a reality for communities across the United States, from Flint, Michigan to Louisiana’s ‘cancer alley’. California, with its green rhetoric and environmental image, is no exception. White settlement of the state in the 1800s was driven in large part by the accelerating pace of extractive industries: gold and mercury mining, timber and so-called "black gold"—oil. Each of these industries had its own catastrophic environmental and human costs but while the gold and mercury mines slowly lost steam, California remains a major oil producer. And nowhere is the power of California oil more evident than in Los Angeles.

TowerOfHope BeverlyHillsHigh _CREDIT Sarah Craig _Faces of Fracking.jpg
A boy plays basketball in Beverly Hills while the "Tower of Hope", a disguised oil well, stands in the background. Oil rigs can be found throughout L.A., but many of the biggest extraction and refining centers are sited in low-income communities and communities of color. | Sara Craig / Faces of Fracking

If you walk through almost any L.A. neighborhood, monuments of the oil industry are all around you, even if you don’t see them. Oil sacrifice zones permeate the city. There’s the Echo Park deep pool, where failed gold miner Edward Doheny first launched the frenzied rush for oil in the city by piercing the earth with a sharpened eucalyptus tree in 1892. There’s the "Tower of Hope," a 165 foot derrick outside of Beverly Hills High School, covered in a floral mural. There’s the fake synagogue in Pico Robertson, constructed by Occidental Petroleum to disguise a cluster of 40 wells. But many of the city’s biggest extraction and refining centers disproportionately impact low-income communities and communities of color. University Park, where Cobo grew up, for instance, is a predominantly Latinx neighborhood, and the percentage of families earning under $20,000 is the second highest in all of Los Angeles.

Nalleli Cobo, dressed in a dark green sweatshirt, speaks at a podium.
Nalleli Cobo speaks at L.A. City Hall on Jane Fonda's Fire Drill Friday, an event to demand that officials address the climate crisis. Cobo has spent eleven years fighting against neighborhood drilling in L.A. after the AllenCo oil well site impacted her health and the health of her community. | Rachel Luna / Getty Images

Cobo never intended to become an activist, but the drilling in her neighborhood left her feeling like she had no choice. She has now spent eleven of her twenty years on this earth fighting against neighborhood drilling in L.A. She started, along with other residents of her building, a campaign called People Not Pozos, which mobilized to draw the attention of city and federal investigators and shut down the AllenCo oil site. Soon after, she started organizing with STAND LA, which pushes to end neighborhood drilling across the city. She also co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, which sued the city of L.A. in 2015 for violating California’s Environmental Quality Act, ultimately driving the city to adopt more stringent drilling requirements, and reaching a settlement a year later.

These groups recently had two other major victories. After years of organizing by Cobo, and a coalition of activist groups, the Los Angeles City Council recently took first steps to phase out oil drilling in the city; the resolution means no new oil drilling permits can be approved in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles, and existing wells may be deemed "nonconforming," meaning that their permits can be revoked. But there’s still no clear timeline for implementation, and a large swath of the city is excluded from the plan.

On the state level, last Thursday, California announced a draft public health regulation that would institute a buffer distance of 3,200 feet, otherwise known as a setback, between wells and communities. The new draft regulation is the outcome of years of advocacy, however it would only prevent permitting of new wells; existing wells would be able to continue operating and are eligible for re-permitting, though with more stringent safety regulations.

At a press conference to announce the draft policy in Wilmington, CA, Darryl Molina Sarmiento, executive director of the environmental justice advocacy group Communities for a Better Environment, took the podium. She noted that if implemented, the regulation would impact 2 million Californians who live, seek medical care and study within that distance of a well. "We are tired of being treated like sacrifice zones," she said.

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