'Routine' planning hearing raises questions about L.A.'s oversight on oil drilling

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A City of Los Angeles zoning administrator will consider approval for expanded oil drilling work at the Freeport McMoRan-owned Jefferson Drill Site tomorrow, in what has historically been a routine hearing.

West Adams neighbors who seek full environmental review of operations there say the hearing is anything but. 

The dispute draws attention to a not-so-simple question: What’s LA’s role in regulating oil and gas operations?

The neighborhood groups believe they know. “The purpose of a city, the primary purpose of a city, is to ensure that its residents are safe,” says Angela Johnson Meszaros, a lawyer with Physicians for Social Responsibility, who is working with the drill site's neighborhood groups.

Authority over oil production has long been a complex web in urban areas. State law grants authority to the Department of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources over subsurface operations.

Regulators at the South Coast Air Quality Management District enforce federal and state laws, and in recent years, have taken an interest in airborne toxic chemicals, requiring operators to disclose their use in some circumstances.

On Budlong Avenue, along the drill site’s northeast edge, Jackie Garcia stands in her doorway as fading sun sets blue sky ablaze with pink and orange. She has lived here for years, opposite where they’ve pulled 7 million barrels of oil from the ground since 1965. Just a few weeks ago she heard that the current owner, Freeport McMoRan, stores acid and other hazardous chemicals on top of drilling.

“It’s kind of dangerous, I don’t agree with that at all,” she says.

A mother of two, Garcia has a third baby on the way. But she’s never complained to the city. 

“I didn’t think that I was – that I had the option,” she says.

The city of Los Angeles has always held some authority over oil through the fire department.

“They can ensure that they have inspections from the fire department to make sure that fire safety equipment exists,” Meszaros says. “They can ensure that toxic chemicals stored at a site are not close to residential or schools close to a site.”

A comprehensive review of Los Angeles Fire Department records for oil operations in West Adams over the last 60 years doesn’t find that the city has done much of that. They reveal only one inspection for the property, in 2011, when an inspector found a mislabeled piece of equipment; remedy was simple.

Later that year, a mishap reported to the state office of Emergency Services sprayed “a fine mist” of oil over a house and onto cars parked along the street. The L.A. Fire Department is listed in state records as the administrative agency, but no records show that the LAFD responded.

Meszaros was surprised. “I guess I thought I would see evidence of the fire department having checked in. at least if not routinely, at least at certain periods of time over the past 50 years,” she says.”

The city of Los Angeles also holds sway over oil operators through the conditions written into Planning Department-issued permits.

Planning Department officials directed comment about the Jefferson Drill Site to the office of Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents this area. His spokeswoman Kimberly Briggs says, “He’s not taking a position on the issue.”

How the Planning Department manages drill operations more generally is revealed in a recent report sent to the City Council on the state of oil and gas regulation in Los Angeles.

Its analysis bolsters the arguments of West Adams residents that tracking oil in L.A. is too difficult. “There is no comprehensive way in which to track all oil and gas activity, permits, and their subsequent conditions of approval,” the report’s author writes.

Over half a century at the Jefferson Drill Site, operations have changed. Pumping pulls up less oil than it did at peak, in the mid-1970s, but more natural gas, and much more brackish water.

But according to the planning department’s report, “updates to the code section have not kept time with the changing industry, economy [or] urban environment.”

Freeport McMoRan declined an interview. In a statement, the company emphasized that its Jefferson operations are routine and conventional, that questions in the zoning hearing are narrow, and that nothing it’s doing deserves environmental review.

But longtime West Adams resident Richard Parks disagrees. In October, he says, Freeport trucked in 20,000 gallons of acid to clean out an injection well – a kind that regional air regulators aren’t monitoring.

“And I’ll tell you the scariest thing. When they finished this acid job, plants on the northeast corner turned brown and died," Parks says. "They were burned. It looks like hydrochloric acid burns. If this is what Freeport’s operations are doing to the plant life. What is it doing to our lungs?

Until they get answers to that and other questions, Parks and his neighbors say they’re going to keep going to every hearing, routine and not. 

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