South LA youth, non-profits sue city over neighborhood oil drilling

At its closest point, the Jefferson drill site is only three feet from homes. | Caitlyn Hynes, Intersections South L.A.

A few blocks west of the University of Southern California, behind ivy-covered walls, is the Jefferson oil-drilling site. The walls may block neighbors from seeing what goes on behind them, but they know, nonetheless.

Now, South Los Angeles youth, tired of living near toxic chemicals with little protection, are joining together with environmental non-profits to sue the city.

The Jefferson drilling site, owned and operated by Freeport-McMoran Inc., is one of the sites named in a lawsuit brought against the city. Located in the heart of a South Los Angeles neighborhood, the site is protected only by a retaining wall that neighbors say does little to contain the noise and odors produced by drilling. Other South L.A. sites face similar problems.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, Communities for a Better Environment, and the Center for Biological Diversity, held a press conference last Friday to announce the case. The groups allege that the city has not only violated regulations from the California Environmental Quality Act by issuing exemptions for environmental impact reports on oil drilling and production sites, but that it has also forced residents of color to bear disproportionate environmental and health burdens because of the lack of safety measures around several South Los Angeles sites.

Standing outside City Hall Friday with signs with that read, “Our health is not for sale” and, “Ain’t no power like the power of youth,” the minors stood behind speakers who demanded that the city comply with the California Environmental Quality Act by conducting environmental impact reports and providing better protection from, odors, toxins and noise pollution at the drilling sites.

“Our health and our environment are at risk. Community members should not have to jeopardize their health by simply being at home,” high school student Joshua Navarro told the press.

The lawsuit comes on the heels of an October audit that found that since 2007, most Los Angeles oil sites have not been subjected to an environmental impact report assessing the site’s health and environmental impacts on surrounding communities.

Reports from Al-Jazeera America found that the Jefferson drilling location is one of the sites lacking such documentation.  It is currently unclear why these oversights have continued.

Protests and this lawsuit against oil companies have drawn the support of youth who live in the neighborhoods surrounding the Jefferson drill site. Many of the kids involved have lived around the site for years. They’ve smelled the chemicals and heard the loud sounds that often accompany drilling.

Elena Hume, 10, has been involved with several protests. She said she and her family would smell the chemicals as they went on walks around their neighborhood.

“I never knew it was an oil-drilling site. We’d see the bushes, and the rows of trees, and the big yellow gate,” Hume said. But now she knows what is happening and she feels it’s wrong to expose her neighborhood to the fumes of the toxic chemicals.

Jordan Parks, 12, has lived near the site his entire life. For a long time he and his family didn’t know exactly what was behind the walls. But when his father discovered it was an oil-drilling site, “Everyone started realizing how incredibly bad it was,” Jordan said.

Youth from the neighborhood around the Jefferson site, brought together by school, church and neighborhood tutoring programs, have become more involved in the issue through protests at the drilling site over the past few years.

Richard Parks, Jordan’s father, said that the kids were the ones who wanted to take action. He said the youth wanted to initiate the process because their homes and families were being directly affected.

A report from the National Resources Defense Council found that the chemicals used at oil drilling sites have been linked to cancer and other reproductive health problems. Neighbors have also blamed the site for headaches, nosebleeds and asthma.

Tanja Srebotnjak, a professor at Harvey Mudd College who has worked in oil and gas research for over fifteen years, said that the closer neighbors are to the chemicals used at oil drilling sites, the more susceptible they are to health complications.

“Farther is better and some states and municipalities have set distances ranging…up to 1,500 feet, 2,000 feet,” Srebotnjak said.

But a 2014 Community Health Councils study found that South L.A. drilling sites located in neighborhoods with high percentages of people of color were significantly closer to homes, schools and churches than sites in West L.A.

While the average distance from homes, schools and churches in South L.A. is 85 feet, the West L.A. and Wilshire sites, located in primarily white neighborhoods, are about 400 feet away.

Many West L.A. sites also have enclosed structures or some type of geographic barrier like a golf course that can help mitigate noise and odors. The Jefferson site, in contrast, has only a retaining wall as physical protection.

Niki Wong of Redeemer Community Partnership, a South L.A. non-profit that works in the neighborhood around the Jefferson drill site, estimated that the wells at the site are a mere 60 feet from homes, a distance that almost certainly exposes residents to toxins. Without an environmental impact report, it is hard to know exactly how the community would be affected if an explosion or other accident were to happen on the site.

Wong said that it is key to involve the youth of the neighborhood in this effort. “It’s important for them [to recognize] the need for a healthy and safe environment to grow up in.”

As for the kids around the Jefferson drill site, they say they just want their neighborhood to be safe for families. “It’d be nice if they just shut [the drilling site] down and turned it into a park or something, or more housing,” said Jordan.

The city attorney’s office told the Los Angeles Times that it will review the lawsuit.


Manipulating the magnets

Mid-City's Prescott School of Enriched Sciences is the only school that feeds directly into the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. LACES is one of the top schools in the state. | Caitlyn Hynes, Intersections South L.A.

Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences is the only school that feeds directly into the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies. LACES is one of the top schools in the state. | Caitlyn Hynes, Intersections South L.A.

Four weeks into the school year, Ellen Hume got the call she had hoped wouldn’t come. Her daughter Elena, 10, had been taken off the waitlist and accepted into Mid-City’s Prescott School of Enriched Sciences.

Like many parents in the Los Angeles area, Hume had been applying for magnet schools since her daughter was in second grade. When Hume received the call, she was happy with Elena’s then-current elementary school, Synergy Charter Academy, and didn’t necessarily want her child to go to Mid-City.

Yet, for Hume and many other parents, the appeal of Mid-City is not Mid-City itself, but the fact that it is the only direct feeder school for the Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies.

LACES, as it is better known, is the highest ranked school within the Los Angeles Unified School District according to U.S. News and World Report. In 2015, the school had 3,247 applications for 224 open spots. That admission rate is less than 7 percent—more selective than UCLA that same year.

To ensure a child’s admission into LACES, some parents have decided to apply to Mid-City in their child’s later elementary school years. Their year at Mid-City is simply a means to an end, something 10-year-old Elena herself is aware of.

“I think it will be worth it to switch from Synergy to Mid-City to get into LACES. If I had a choice I would choose Synergy and LACES but I know that’s kind of impossible,” she said.

Phil Placenti, who must weigh the educational future of his two daughters, said the reliability and success of LACES are what has drawn their family to the school.

“It has an established school culture that is healthy, it offers a wide range of classes and clubs, and impressive numbers of LACES students go to good colleges,” Placenti said. “LACES isn’t perfect, but it is consistently strong, and has been for a long time.”

LACES also offers sixth through 12th grade, meaning if a child gets in as a sixth grader, the parents no longer have to play the magnet points game.

The fact that Mid-City offers families the chance to matriculate directly into LACES, a solid, steady and reliable school, means that parents whose children have been offered admission into Mid-City have to carefully weigh their options.

If they accept, children may be attending a lower-performing school in a far-away neighborhood. If they decline, they will lose all of their magnet points – a disaster for upper-elementary school students preparing for the middle school magnet application process.

“It’s the only system where you’re applying, and find yourself hoping you don’t get accepted,” said Jolene Hjerleid, whose daughter was accepted to Mid-City in 2012 and is now an eighth grader at LACES.

Hume eventually decided to send Elena to Mid-City. because doing so would set her up for the next six years of her academic career.

Read More: Los Angeles magnet school shows off successful STEM and AP program

“Even though we loved Synergy, Mid-City is a feeder school for LACES,” said Hume. “We decided to send her to Mid-City for one year because she would be set up for the rest of junior high and high school.”

Amy Levinson also saw Mid-City as merely a stepping stone to LACES. When her son was accepted into the elementary school the day before starting fifth grade, she decided to take the spot to guarantee his place at LACES.

“We agreed within the day that we were going to do it because it would solve the middle school and high school problem. So it was worth it for him to have upheaval for a year. But he was leaving his school again, where he was thriving,” Levinson said.

The magnet points system and lack of streamlined school experience in LAUSD means that parents are constantly thinking ahead and planning for the future.

“I don’t know how often I’m in conversations with people at parties or whatever and we’re always asking about, ‘Where does your kid go to school? How’d they get there? What are you going to do next year?,” Hjerleid said. “There’s not a logical place for the kids to feed into next year.”

magnetinfographicThe stakes for magnet points got higher in 2011 when LACES officials made Mid-City their only feeder school. The decision meant that parents didn’t have to rely solely on one application year, but could automatically matriculate to LACES if they went to Mid-City. Students are also significantly more likely to get into Mid-City. Last year they had 189 applications for 61 spots, and a 32 percent acceptance rate—more than four times as high as LACES

Hjerleid‘s daughter was in  one of the first classes at Mid-City to be directly admitted to LACES. When the change was announced, she says there was some backlash among parents.

“Everyone was a little surprised when Mid-City was chosen as a feeder school. I think people were like,  why is this little unknown elementary school being chosen for the magnet?” she said.

LAUSD was unavailable for comment on why Mid-City was chosen as the sole feeder school for this article.

Though Mid-City has consistently improved its API score over the past five years, rising from 761 in 2008 to 801 in 2013, only 51.9 percent of students were at or above proficient in English, and 57.2 percent in math, according to its 2013 Adequate Yearly Progress report.

In contrast, Synergy Charter Academy, where Hume’s daughter Elena attended from kindergarten to fourth grade, had an API of 907 with 75 percent of students proficient in English and 88.9 percent in math.

When Hjerleid and her husband decided to transfer their daughter to Mid-City in 2012, they left West Hollywood Elementary School, which had a 932 API score that year and an 83.5 percent proficiency in English and 85 percent proficiency rate in math.

The qualitative aspects such as Mid-City’s disorganization and lack of academic rigor, however, are what the parents interviewed focused on.

Levinson, whose son also spent a few years at West Hollywood, was disappointed with Mid-City’s academic standards.

“It felt like he was taking a huge step back academically. The math was not hard for him. He didn’t have vocabulary all year,” said Levinson. “Just things that felt like they were a given; like vocabulary and spelling tests. I felt like his preparation [for LACES] came at West Hollywood.”

Hjerleid and her husband also wondered if it would be worth it to transfer to Mid-City. The academic expectations, she said, were not as high as she believed were necessary. “And that was disappointing, but we were prepared for it,” she said.

Hjerleid and Hume both confirmed that they accepted their spot at Mid-City not because they felt it would be academically challenging for their children, but because they knew if they did not accept, they risked losing their chance at LACES permanently.

Read More: Crenshaw High’s magnet conversion and Baldwin Hills families

Placentis’ oldest daughter Analisa is a sixth grader at LACES, despite the fact that she didn’t get into Mid-City last year. When Analisa was put on Mid-City’s waiting list, he said  it was a relief. But she was admitted into LACES this year with 16 magnet points, which is generally agreed to be the minimum number of points for LACES.

Nevertheless, the Placentis understood how hard the decision would be.

“Going to a school like Mid-City for a year or two in order to know that your child will have a solid middle school option can be a difficult thing to pass up. For our older daughter, we applied for a spot at Mid-City and prayed she wouldn’t get it,” said Placenti.

Hjerleid says they wouldn’t have changed anything regarding the decision they made for their daughter’s education.

“We also thought our daughter was the kind of student and personality that could weather that pretty well and maintain a sense of academic rigor and studying and all of that even if the expectations were lower than where she had come from,” said Hjerleid.

Despite the different academic expectations, some parents believe that one-year at Mid-City will be regained in value many times over while attending LACES.

Hjerleid summed it up: “Now we’re done, basically. . . it feels great to know that they’re both there at LACES, sixth through 12th grade. Now we just need to worry about college applications in three or four years.”

South Central development project concerns neighbors


A new South Los Angeles development project drew sharp criticism from neighbors and health advocacy groups at a press conference Monday. A report released by Human Impact Partners found that “The Reef” development, slated to build two multi-use high-rise buildings, will place over half of renters in the site’s surrounding area at high risk for financial strain or displacement.

In September, the City Council released a 3,000 page environmental report on the development. The document has been has been a source of strain on attempting to be involved in the development process.

“In the immediate, we are concerned about the draft [environmental impact review] project that has only given us 47 days to respond to a 3,000 page document,” said Benjamin Torres of CDTech.

Beyond the environmental impact report, the community is concerned that the development will bring new residents into the proposed luxury apartments while pushing out lower-income locals because of rising rent and property value.

Read More: Neighborhood council to take action on Reef Project report

Los Angeles is the least affordable city for renters, and HIP found that the city lost 65 percent of state and federal funding for affordable housing between 2009 and 2014.

The South Los Angeles neighborhood surrounding the development is one of the most crowded areas in the city. In the community where 45 percent of residents fall below the poverty line, a rise in prices leaves many residents forced to compromise.

The Reef development

Residents hold a press conference in front of The Reef, which plans to develop two new skyscrapers in South LA over the next 15 years. | Caitlyn Hynes, Intersections South L.A.

Community members are worried that The Reef development will not include affordable housing, an issue that already exists. At the press conference, residents and community leaders urged developers and the City Council to consider their voices throughout the 15-year building process.  

Benjamin Torres of CDTech said he was concerned that the decisions made about the development would not include the input of the neighbors who currently live there.

“One [concern] is the long-term process and what the role of the community is, and making sure we have equitable community development that benefits the area,” he said.

Neighbors want South L.A. to attract developers. They also want development to reflect the neighborhood’s residents as they are now, not those who will move in to be a part of The Reef’s demographic.

“Let’s imagine for one minute what this project could be. Imagine if this was affordable housing for the residents of affordable housing for South Los Angeles,” said Jim Mangia, President and CEO of St. John’s Well Child and Family Center. “Imagine if that development was serving the people of this community, who have built this community with their blood and their sweat and their tears. Imagine if some of that retail space were community health centers that served this community.”

Read More: Some South LA residents express uncertainty with billion dollar development 

Dr. Holly Avey of HIP said that her organization was concerned about the negative impact that this development could have on the historic South Central L.A. neighborhood. The report found that community residents who are impacted by displacement and financial issues are at a high risk of a variety of health problems, including anxiety, depression, obesity and diabetes.

Beatriz Solis of the California Endowment said that some families are forced to make delicate tradeoffs, like choosing between healthy food or preschool.

Cynthia Bryant, the owner of a local ice cream shop, voiced her concern that when the development does go forward, the businesses in The Reef will push her out of the neighborhood. Bryant worries that the business space in The Reef will drive up rent prices across the neighborhood.

“I don’t want to be the first one to get on the boat if we get pushed out of this community, because they’re pushing us further and further. But where is the boat loading? Should I be the first or should I be the last, should I keep hanging on?” said Bryant.

The rising rents and subsequent displacement of residents worries Solis as well.

“At the community level, when people are forced out, the whole community fabric begins to unravel, and what cohesion and collaborative efficacy, or social and political power did exist begins to evaporate, making it more and more difficult to have a voice in community development,” Solis said.

Neighbors like Erendira Morales, a working mother of four children, say they want to be a part of this process to make sure that their concerns are being heard and addressed.

“We feel that they are playing with the life and the future of the people who live in this community. Our local representatives are not listening to us,” said Morales. “We have our interests, we have our opinions and we feel that they are not paying attention to us. We want to participate, we want to be part of this process.”

3 Worlds Cafe serves up food, social justice

Aqeela Sherills says his mission is “to provide a set of quality services, especially food.” The 3 Worlds Café, named for three of South Los Angeles’ historic ethnic groups, is a place for residents to gather, invest in and transform their neighborhood.

[Read more…]