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A new law would let people sue oil companies for million-dollar medical costs: 'Our bodies were the oil company's filters'

California's oil companies may face penalties of up to $1 million.

Oil companies thanks to SB 556

Photo Credit: iStock

For the first time, California's oil companies may face real accountability for the harmful pollution their oil wells release into our vulnerable communities, Yale Climate Connections (YCC) reports.

The health risks of air, water, and soil pollution caused by oil wells have long been studied by experts. The California Oil and Gas Public Health Rulemaking Scientific Advisory Panel found that repeated exposure can cause problems during pregnancy, as well as lung issues.

And communities that contain these wells — usually low-income communities — experience much higher rates of these illnesses, as well as other problems like cancer, YCC reports. 

"Our bodies were the oil company's filters," Monic Uriarte, a California resident whose family's health was devastated by a Los Angeles oil well and a gas-processing facility, told YCC.

However, in the past, it was difficult to hold companies responsible for the harm they caused. Problems with pregnancy, cancer, and lung disease occasionally occur, even without oil well exposure. This makes it hard to prove in a court of law that a specific person's illness was caused by oil drilling. 

For example, business advocates have argued that the same diseases could be caused by exhaust from diesel trucks instead.

But California's SB 556 would change the situation.

Under this law, any California resident who lives within 3,200 feet of an active oil well — and is diagnosed with a qualifying medical condition — could sue the oil company and its board members, YCC explains. 

Penalties range from $250,000 to $1 million, and the amounts could be tripled in some cases. Those funds would help cover the medical costs and the suffering of victims.

The law would also make it very difficult for companies to dodge responsibility. In current lawsuits, the party suing has to prove the other party is at fault. However, SB 556 assumes the company is responsible for lung disease, pregnancy complications, or cancer that occurs too close to its wells, and it's up to the company to prove otherwise, YCC reports.

According to FracTracker Alliance, over 2.76 million people in California live within the designated range of an oil well. Even if only a small portion of them get sick, oil companies could lose billions of dollars for disregarding human health and safety.

"This would almost eliminate oil production in California," Paul Deiro, the senior director at Western States Petroleum Association, said at a hearing.

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