For L.A. oil site's neighbors, a sense of more trouble wafting their way

Residents near Freeport McMoRan Oil and Gas oil site fear proposed burner is a step toward expanding drilling

When the winds blew a certain way, Don Martin said he could smell from his Jefferson Park apartment the pungent odors coming from the Freeport McMoRan Oil and Gas oil site.

He felt there was nothing he could do about it.

But Martin said he felt better when the company proposed installing a clean burner that would help dispose of gases that were the byproduct of oil production.

Then he learned where it would be placed: just outside the enclosed drilling site, in a nicely landscaped green space, according to a petition the company submitted in February.

For residents like Martin, the proposed move seemed like a step toward expanding drilling outside the current area.

"We've already had trouble with the oil company inside their walls," Martin said. "The last thing we need is to give them any more wiggle room."

Earlier this month, more than 50 people attended a meeting at Los Angeles City Hall to express their concerns about where the burner would go.

"I'm very much concerned about the safety issues with regard to the proposed burner," said Renee Gunter, who lives near the site. "But more importantly, I'm very concerned about precedent in creating work space outside the land."

Amy Forbes, legal counsel for Freeport McMoRan, and company engineers formed a row at the front of the meeting. While listing the site's safety record, Forbes presented the burner as a level of operational redundancy to meet new environmental regulations.

"This is a piece of equipment approved by the Fire Department, the AQMD [Air Quality Management District]," Forbes said. "We have taken the necessary steps to make sure that we're doing our jobs to be good neighbors."

At the heart of the recent debate is the green space near where the burner would go. As part of Freeport McMoRan's permit for oil production, the company had agreed to landscape a buffer zone to keep the drilling site from view. The conditions included planting trees and grass, installing sprinklers and creating a meandering dry creek bed. The final condition called for the company to "work with the 10th Council District office and [L.A.] Archdiocese to allow future public access," according to the conditions of the permit.

But the green space, which was designed by Gunter, remains fenced in and off limits to the public, upsetting residents who say they should have access. They also argue that the burner should not be placed inside the landscaped area.

Forbes said the area was zoned for oil drilling as part of the original 1959 lease and that the burner must go there because there is no space inside the actual drilling enclosure. Forbes said public access would not be allowed because of safety issues related to underground pipelines.

She also said the land does not belong to Freeport McMoRan but to the L.A. Archdiocese. A church official said that the archdiocese owns the land but that the oil company has a lease to use it however it wants.

For many neighbors, allowing the company to place the burner outside of where oil drilling occurs sets a bad precedent.

"If we give an exception in this case, when do we get to draw the line again?" Donna Ann Ward, founder of Cowatching Oil L.A., said at the City Hall hearing.

The burner would sit across from Biniyam Asnake's apartment window. The 16-year-old said he had seen the green space grow and workers tend to it behind the fence.

"I usually play soccer with my friends on the pathway next to the wall," Asnake said, adding that he does not want the burner going there.

"I don't think any amount of trees could block that out."

jerome.campbell@latimes.com

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