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Community outraged after suffering repeated indignities at hands of oil company: 'We did not get the action that was needed'

"It was ridiculous."

“It was ridiculous."

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Wells abandoned by the oil and gas industry are posing a particular threat in a Los Angeles neighborhood, and residents are fighting an uphill battle to fix the longstanding problem.

What's happening?

In Wilmington, crude oil developer Warren Resources has 220 wells on one block, including 50 that are no longer in use, Inside Climate News reported. The site is near homes, businesses, parks, and a daycare facility.

In January, one of the wells spewed 5,000 gallons of a toxic mix of crude oil and produced water into the air and onto the street, cars, and a coffee shop, as ICN detailed. Less than two weeks later, 40 gallons of oil oozed out of the ground from a Chevron pipeline that had been decommissioned at least 25 years prior.

"It was ridiculous," resident and Communities for a Better Environment organizer Ashley Hernandez said. "I just know that what happened in Wilmington, had it happened in Palos Verdes, had it happened in Beverly Hills, some immediate action would have taken place. But in Wilmington, where we have brown, Indigenous, Black folk, Asian folk living here, we did not get the action that was needed."

Another community activist, Luis Martinez, an organizer with Fossil Free California, cited the multiplying effects of the industry's dirty energy undertaking.

"We're dealing with poor air quality conditions from the fossil fuel industry itself, and then we're dealing with all the environmental impacts of worsening climate change conditions that the fossil fuel industry has facilitated in the first place," he said

Why are leaking wells important?

People in Wilmington, a mostly low-income Latino area, suffer cancer, heart disease, asthma, and other health issues at higher rates than normal. They cough so much that doctors call it "the Wilmington cough," ICN reported.

But there are 2.7 million Californians who live within 3,200 feet of a well, the outlet noted, most of whom are people of color.

It can cost nearly $1 million to plug a well in the Los Angeles area, and leaking wells in California increased by 32% from 2018 to 2021. With 60,000 active wells, the state faces "a looming crisis," according to ICN.

It's made worse by the industry's shirking responsibility by dumping its old wells on small companies that can't plug them or clean them up. Sometimes, companies paid just $150 to abandon a well rather than plug it, so taxpayers are looking at $20 billion in cleanup costs.

"There are tools we can be using to protect communities in the city of Los Angeles that we're not using equally across the city," Redeemer Community Partnership founder and president Richard Parks said.

What's being done about leaking wells?

In 2022, the Los Angeles City Council voted to divest from the industry, banning new wells and phasing out extraction by 2042.

That same year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Senate Bill 1137, which banned drilling new wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, elder care facilities, and other "sensitive receptors." In response, the industry has filed two lawsuits and spent more than $30 million to try to overturn it, ICN reported.

Lawmakers are working on a couple of other options. Assembly Bill 1866 would eliminate the fee option, force well operators to develop plans to manage and plug their idle wells, and increase the percentage of wells they must plug, with wells close to homes, schools, and hospitals getting top priority. AB 2716 would fine oil companies $10,000 every day for operating a low-production well within that buffer zone until the well is plugged.

"We're not going to win until every single one of these sites is shut down," Hernandez said. "And we ensure that environmental racism isn't going to be another shared experience with the generations to come."

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