The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency formally accused a South Los Angeles oil operation of putting the health and safety of nearby residents at risk by failing to maintain safe operations or take steps to prevent accidental releases of hazardous substances.
In issuing citations to Allenco Energy Inc., the EPA said the company could be subject to fines or other measures as a result of several violations discovered during a Nov. 6 inspection of the facility.
"These are troubling violations because they go to the heart of how a safe operation is supposed to be run," Jared Blumenfeld, EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest, said. "That's why it is critical this facility come into compliance with federal laws quickly."
The EPA investigation was prompted by complaints of respiratory ailments and nosebleeds that residents blamed on fumes emitted by Allenco. The company's University Park oil extraction operation is on land the company leases from the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Despite repeated requests, the EPA has yet to receive a copy of the archdiocese's lease contract with Allenco, investigators said.
Nancy H. Ibrahim, executive director at Esperanza Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit affordable housing developer in the area, said she was disappointed in the slow response. "As landlord of this property, it must step up to its responsibilities with an oil operation causing great harm to the community," she said.
Monica Valencia, a spokeswoman for the archdiocese, said, "We are coordinating with counsel and intend to fully respond to the EPA's requests."
The facility is also under investigation by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the Los Angeles city attorney's office.
Since 2010, the AQMD has received hundreds of complaints of noxious odors and related health effects from residents of the neighborhood a half-mile north of the USC campus and surrounded by low-income housing, day care centers and schools.
The EPA investigation at the 2-acre site determined that Allenco failed to inspect pressure vessels, steel piping and steel tanks; perform thickness and corrosion rate tests in piping, or follow equipment manufacturers' recommendations for testing, calibration and repair of its methane and flame detectors.
The inspectors also found that Allenco failed to train personnel on the proper operation and maintenance of equipment, maintain an emergency contact list of local agencies or develop reporting instructions for employees in case of oil discharges. In addition, Allenco was cited for failing to record inspections and produce required inspection schedules.
Allenco has until Jan. 27 to respond to the violations, each carrying penalties of up to $37,500, the EPA said.
"Our main goal is to bring this facility into compliance with applicable laws," Blumenfeld said. "If the company is not in compliance, or cannot show how it will come into compliance, the whole investigation will take on a very different color."
In an interview, Allenco spokesman Peter Whittingham said, "We will respond appropriately" to the EPA violations, which he described as "mostly related to record-keeping and inspections, and not to actual releases of emissions or public health impairment."
A week ago, City Atty. Mike Feuer's office filed a lawsuit that accused Allenco of lax practices that have exposed University Park neighbors to noxious fumes and odors resulting in a range of adverse health effects.
Formal complaints of respiratory ailments and nosebleeds have all but disappeared since operations were temporarily suspended in November at the request of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).
Allenco hopes to resume production within a few months, after making improvements. But the federal and local cases against the facility have brought hope of a permanent halt to fumes that have drawn complaints since Allenco boosted oil production by 400% in 2010.