Environmental advocates sue L.A., accusing it of 'rubber stamping' oil drilling plans

Environmental groups that have accused Los Angeles of “rubber stamping” plans involving oil drilling near homes and schools are taking their fight to court.

Their lawsuit, filed Friday, accuses the city of systematically violating the California Environmental Quality Act by exempting new wells and other proposed changes at oil extraction sites from required environmental reviews.

The plaintiffs, who include children and teens living near drilling sites in South Los Angeles and Wilmington, also assert that the city has left predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods more vulnerable to health and safety risks tied to oil drilling than mostly white areas. Much more stringent conditions, including taller walls, better sound protection and less-polluting equipment, were imposed on drilling sites in West Los Angeles and the Wilshire area, they argue.

The groups suing the city — Youth for Environmental Justice, the Center for Biological Diversity and the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition — are asking the court to stop L.A. from approving new plans related to oil drilling without a “faithful application” of the state law. The suit also seeks to halt approvals that result in unequal protections for different neighborhoods.

Isis Reyes, 16, of Wilmington said she was tired of noise, foul smells and the “dinosaurs” — plainly visible drilling machinery — in her community.

“I don’t think we deserve that because of the color of our skin,” she said.

City officials did not immediately respond to the lawsuit’s allegations. Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for City Atty. Mike Feuer, and Planning Department director Michael LoGrande said their offices would review the suit.

Earlier this week, before the lawsuit was filed, LoGrande said the city was taking steps to hire a petroleum expert to advise officials on issues involving drilling.

“The city recognizes that Angelenos residing in communities throughout the city have been and continue to be affected by oil drilling operations,” LoGrande said.

Los Angeles is peppered with drilling sites, many of which predate the 1970 passage of the California Environmental Quality Act. That law requires government agencies to examine how new buildings or other development could affect the environment and to avoid or reduce those effects if possible.

However, city officials have exempted most plans related to oil drilling and extraction from those legal requirements, granting exceptions “under the basis of there being no change in land use,” according to a report prepared last year by the Planning Department.

The attorneys who filed suit Friday said they knew of only one instance when Los Angeles required an environmental impact report for a project related to oil drilling. That case involved replacing a drilling rig at a site in a largely white neighborhood, the lawsuit states.

The new suit contends that in most cases, oil companies submit brief statements arguing that their projects should be exempted from the state requirements, which the city accepts without examining the proposals’ possible environmental effects. Plans to drill more wells, redrill old ones and install new equipment have received such exemptions, said attorney Gladys Limón of the group Communities for a Better Environment.

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents parts of South L.A., said he hadn’t heard a good argument for the practice. “If there’s any activity that should attract the highest level of environmental review,” he said, “you would think drilling for oil … would be among those activities.”

Limón added that she believes that following the state rules would require L.A. to deny projects involving drilling next to homes and schools because the risks could not be adequately reduced. Richard Frank, director of the California Environmental Law & Policy Center at UC Davis School of Law, said if the lawsuit succeeds, it could set an important precedent for other parts of California where oil and gas drilling is expanding with the use of new techniques.

The California Independent Petroleum Assn. did not comment on the lawsuit, but spokeswoman Sabrina Lockhart said oil production statewide had “the toughest protections in the nation.”

Oil companies have argued the exemptions are justified. For example, when oil company Freeport-McMoRan sought city approval to install an enclosed burner to eliminate excess gas at a South L.A. site, the company said no environmental report was needed because it would have little effect on the community.

But neighbors pushed back there and at other drilling sites, saying L.A. should demand more scrutiny of the possible harm caused by new wells and equipment. This week, a neighborhood council that represents areas including West Adams and Jefferson Park passed a resolution insisting on a minimum level of environmental review for new wells and other oil and gas projects.

To protect neighbors, Los Angeles has imposed operating rules on drilling sites, but environmentalists say those protections have varied greatly in different parts of the city. The environmental health nonprofit Community Health Councils Inc. issued a report earlier this year that found that drilling was much closer, on average, to homes and schools in South L.A. and Wilmington than in the Westside or Wilshire areas. And fewer protections — such as enclosing drilling equipment in a building — were required in the southern parts of L.A, the report said.

For instance, the lawsuit alleges that the city has allowed oil companies to use drilling rigs powered by diesel fuel at South L.A. and Wilmington sites close to homes and playgrounds, but required quieter, less polluting, electrically powered rigs for similarly situated sites in West L.A. and the Wilshire area. The result, it says, is “unlawful racial discrimination.”

Many of the teens suing the city live near the AllenCo site in South L.A., which suspended operations two years ago after environmental officials fell ill while visiting the facility. After the site shut down, Feuer sued to stop it from reopening.

Thirteen-year-old Edgar Cabrera, who lives near the site, said the asthma attacks that used to send him to the hospital in the middle of the night have subsided since AllenCo halted operations. But he worries about the site eventually reopening. “Some of us don’t have a lot of money to move,” he said.

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UPDATES

2:36 p.m.: This article was updated to include additional comments from an L.A. City Council member and a spokesperson for the oil industry.   

This article was originally published at 12:23 p.m.

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