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.