Acid Fracking in the Neighborhood? South L.A. Strikes Back

Good fences don't always mean good neighbors. The angle from which you look at them is key. As seen from the street, no one would mind having this tree-lined fence in South L.A. next door:

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But if we helicopter up to a bird's eye P.O.V. on that fence, well, the neighbors might have some second thoughts.

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This is the AllenCo oil extraction site, where unfortunately, pretty green walls have not stopped poisonous fumes from wafting over into nearby homes and schools.

Four years ago, oil production at the site, which is just a few blocks north of the University of Southern California, suddenly increased by 400 percent. The extraction method suspected to have worked this magic is acidization -- a dangerous process which uses hydrofluoric acid to dissolve rock formations, thereby increasing oil flow. (Yes, that's the same stuff they melt bodies with on "Breaking Bad" and is considered one of the most toxic industrial chemicals in the world.)

The production increase was accompanied by hundreds of complaints to the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) from surrounding residents about foul odors and health effects, including constant nosebleeds, asthma, dizziness, headaches, and nausea. But the complaints were dismissed and ignored.

"We have been pretty much the canaries in the coalmine. Our community has been very badly treated," says Nancy Ibrahim, director of Esperanza Community Housing, which owns a building across the street from the site, and helped mobilize the area. "We were wasting our time with the AQMD -- my feeling is they've just been an obfuscating agency," she said. "So we just had to move on to bigger fish."

That bigger fish was Senator Barbara Boxer, who arrived for a dramatic press conference and called on AllenCo to shut down the site. She brought in the EPA, whose investigators were overcome by the noxious fumes themselves during their inspection.

Suddenly those hundreds of complaints were heard loud and clear. On January 15, the EPA found that Allenco was in violation of the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act.

L.A. City Attorney Mike Feuer also filed suit against AllenCo in January. "No community should have to live this way, with windows shut, children kept indoors to protect their health, and neighbors seeking relief from intolerable conditions," he said.

But sadly, more and more communities are living this way, especially in the low-income communities of color of South L.A. As Jose Bravo of the Just Transition Alliance, which works for environmental justice, said: "Communities of color hold, and historically have held this burden, of heavy industries and toxic waste."

Hopefully, the AllenCo issue will be solved. Meanwhile, dangerous new sites are popping up like mushrooms in the sludge.

Here are a couple of different angles on a nice-looking fence at 2126 W. Adams in South L.A.:

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And another one just a few blocks away, at Jefferson and Budlong:

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Whoops! More toxic neighbors hiding behind pretty green shrubs.

But the people next door are getting wise -- and getting loud. These two oil sites have been the subject of a new community organizing effort. (Both are owned by Freeport MacMoRan, who also run the Inglewood oilfield.)

When you hear the term "community organizer," many people draw a blank. But watching Joanne Kim run a neighborhood meeting in West Adams, it clicked: THIS is what it will take, L.A. Whiteboards everywhere, markers squeaking. Getting volunteers to canvass each block, each home and business in the area around the West Adams site, to document every potential violation, every health complaint, every foul odor. To research the leases that the owner of the site -- the Archdiocese -- has signed with the oil company. To set up a camera surveillance system and an air monitoring system, to record potential threats 24/7. To bring balloons to L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson's office. And of course, to get pizza. Anyone who thinks that the link between pizza and activist gatherings ends in college -- think again.

Freeport MacMoRan may rue the day they decided to drill two new wells 200 yards from Kim's house. Not only is she the COO of Community Coalition, which has been doing community organizing in South LA for 24 years -- she is also a worried mom. "My biggest motivation on this issue are my two children," she told me. "I don't have to be a scientist -- though I do have a science background -- to know that this is lunacy.

"Hydrofluoric acid is not an unknown substance, that you can say, 'well it might cause this or that' -- this is a well-studied chemical. And the idea that you put 1,521 pounds of it into one well at the Jefferson site... I'm going, OK, how is it transported? How is it handled? This company, Freeport MacMoRan, who can't seem to manage simple things like putting up emergency numbers -- can we trust you to handle this deadly hydrofluoric acid? What's the spill contingency plan? We asked the fire department, they said -- 'we didn't know they were using any chemicals, they haven't submitted anything to us.'"

Within a few weeks of learning about the new wells, Joanne and her neighbors had organized a huge community meeting at the Holman United Methodist Church in West Adams, attended by Council President Wesson, State Senator Holly Mitchell, and Congresswoman Karen Bass, all of whom pledged their support for the cause -- and immediately shut down the drilling of two new wells at the Adams site. BAM, watch out, Freeport. Never back a mother into a corner.

"When you look at the map in Los Angeles County, all of the wells we have in residential areas -- I hate to sound dumb, but I didn't know -- it is shocking, shocking the number," Wesson told a crowd.

Wesson later passed a City Council resolution to "review and investigate the new oil production and oil drilling techniques being utilized throughout the City of Los Angeles" and last Friday joined his colleagues in a big step toward putting a fracking moratorium in place.

This is good news for all Angelenos, because this is one case where polluters have been more equal-opportunity than usual in spreading their toxic gifts to rich and poor areas alike, as you can see on this map of acidization in the past 7 months:

Red circles denote acidizing locations between June 2, 2013 and January 29, 2014.
Red circles denote acidizing locations between June 2, 2013 and January 29, 2014. | Image: Screenshot courtesyBaldwin Hills Oilwatch, where the map is interactive.

"They are working at a breakneck pace to extract as much oil as they can before real regulations clamp down on their ability to do a free-for-all," said Kim.

Let's zoom in on one particularly alarming case -- six acidizations were done recently right underneath the Beverly Center, which is across the street from Cedars-Sinai hospital. Talk about a potential public safety hazard and a vulnerable population. Care for some hydrofluoric acid exposure with your cancer treatment? (According to the CDC, some of the effects of hydroflouric acid exposure include chronic lung disease, blindness, and death.)

Wells at the Beverly Center.
Wells at the Beverly Center. | Image: Screenshot courtesy Baldwin Hills Oilwatch, where the map is interactive.

Here's the pretty view and the ugly reality next door to Bloomingdales (yes, those yellowish tanks are an oil extraction site):

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We can only hope that the citizens in Beverly Hills and West L.A. will start to get as angry, as organized, and as effective, as the communities in South L.A.

As Pastor Sauls of the Holman Church said, "This is going to be a long haul journey. So put on your seatbelts."

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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