Community group petitions city to enclose South L.A. drilling site

Environmental and community activists are petitioning Los Angeles to require an oil company to enclose a South L.A. drilling site in a building to protect neighbors, arguing that it has menaced nearby residents with loud noises, foul smells and glaring lights.

The petition, submitted Thursday by the environmental law firm Earthjustice on behalf of the South L.A. nonprofit Redeemer Community Partnership, calls on the city to hold a public hearing and ultimately to impose the new requirements on the Jefferson Boulevard site, which sits next to apartments in a densely populated neighborhood west of USC.

Activists have frequently singled out the Jefferson site as a purported example of L.A. failing to properly protect residents from oil and gas production, particularly in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods in southern stretches of the city. It is located closer to homes and other “sensitive sites” than any other L.A. drilling facility, according to a report by the nonprofit Community Health Councils.

Now, environmental and community groups are calling for the city to use its nuisance abatement process — used in the past to crack down on motels or liquor stores that fueled crime or blight — to tighten restrictions on the South L.A. drilling site.

They point out that when drilling first was approved at the facility decades ago, the city declared it must be strictly controlled “to eliminate any possible odor, noise, vibrations, hazards” and other annoyances for neighbors. If needed, the city said it could impose more rules to protect residents.

“We’re really not asking for a lot here,” said Richard Parks, president of Redeemer Community Partnership, pointing out that L.A. has required other drilling sites to be enclosed. “What we’re asking for is the enforcement of the promise that the city made — that oil operations would not impact our community.”

The company running the site, Freeport-McMoRan, did not respond to requests for comment Thursday. It has disputed claims that the Jefferson site is a nuisance. Last year, in a letter to city officials reacting to the environmental groups, it argued that past problems at the drilling site have been promptly addressed and have not been severe enough to threaten neighborhood health or safety and trigger city action.

In the past, the firm also has stressed that it had not had any recent violations from the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources nor any noise violations since the company acquired the facility.

Accusations that the drilling site has created a nuisance “are simply unsubstantiated,” company officials wrote to the city last year, stating that the Jefferson facility had been operating in line with regulatory requirements.

Petroleum industry groups also have been dubious of activists pushing for new city restrictions at the Jefferson site, arguing that facilities like it already face rigorous regulations spanning from the local to the federal level.

“This is just another legal maneuver by groups who want to stop all energy production, which would only make our state more reliant on imported oil produced with little or no environmental protection,” California Independent Petroleum Assn. President Rock Zierman said in reaction to the petition. 

Environmental and community activists, however, point to a long list of complaints raised by neighbors. In the past two years, the Jefferson site had two violations for excessive emissions from a unit that treats water, according to South Coast Air Quality Management District records. In one of those cases, complaints from neighbors triggered a visit from an inspector, who detected a smell like diesel exhaust.

“What we believe we’ve done here is put forward the evidence that shows that the facility is operating in a way that disturbs the community,” Earthjustice staff attorney Angela Johnson Meszaros said.

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Neighbors took such complaints to the city roughly a year and a half ago, when the company sought permission to drill and redrill wells at the Jefferson site. Parks complained that after the company withdrew those plans, the city failed to follow up on residents’ concerns about existing drilling.

Now “the city will have no excuse for ignoring these complaints,” Parks said.

City Councilman Marqueece Harris-Dawson, who represents the area around the Jefferson drill site, said in a brief statement that he expected the city to conduct a timely hearing into "clear and persistent nuisances" documented by residents. The city Planning Department, to which the petition was addressed, said Thursday that it was reviewing the petition with city lawyers.

City rules allow planning officials to impose new requirements if a business or property owner jeopardizes public health or safety, has fueled crime or other disturbances, or otherwise creates a “public nuisance.” If problems persist, the city can revoke past approvals from the planning department.

The fresh push for action at the Jefferson site came as City Atty. Mike Feuer announced that another South Los Angeles drilling site could resume operations only if the company, Allenco Energy Inc., installs a monitoring system to protect local residents who had complained of nosebleeds and other health problems before the facility was shuttered. That system must remain in place for four years after the site is revived, according to the court decision.

emily.alpert@latimes.com

Follow @LATimesEmily for news from Los Angeles City Hall

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