An oil operation that sent noxious fumes into a South Los Angeles neighborhood has agreed to spend about $700,000 on upgrades to prevent future hazardous emissions, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced Thursday.
The settlement capped a four-month investigation by the EPA into Allenco Energy Inc. that was prompted by hundreds of complaints of chemical odors, respiratory ailments, nosebleeds and other health problems in the University Park community, about a half-mile north of USC.
"The company must notify the EPA that they have completed the improvements at least 15 days before reopening," said Jared Blumenfeld, the EPA's regional administrator for the Pacific Southwest. "If they don't, that is something we would take enforcement action on."
Under the terms of the settlement, Allenco agreed to certify that all flame and combustible gas detectors, fire suppression systems, atmospheric tanks, pressure vessels and piping have been recently inspected and are up to code. It also agreed to fully enclose a 30-foot-long open trench to prevent noxious mixtures of mostly oil and water from being exposed to the atmosphere.
The two-acre site is owned by the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and has been leased by Allenco since 2009. Allenco voluntarily shut down operations in late November 2013. Since then, complaints of foul odors have all but disappeared from the surrounding community of mostly low-income housing.
The EPA settlement does not end Allenco's troubles. The Los Angeles city attorney has filed a lawsuit to stop the company from reopening, accusing it of willfully disregarding violation notices issued by oversight agencies. The complaint filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court says Allenco's lax practices are to blame for "adverse health effects on community members in the form of severe headaches, nausea, nosebleeds, chronic fatigue and respiratory ailments including asthma."
Allenco spokesman Peter Whittingham said the company "in the next couple of weeks hopes to seek authorization to reopen" from appropriate regulatory agencies.
Nancy H. Ibrahim, executive director at Esperanza Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit affordable housing developer in the area, said, "our community is pleased with these ongoing investigations — but our concern remains.
"Our community has already experienced such injury that it has no tolerance for hazardous emissions," she said. "We continue to bear all of the risk for industrial contamination, whether it comes from a re-tooled start-up operation or a facility operating under regulated conditions."
U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who urged Allenco to suspend operations pending completion of the EPA investigation, said she agreed. "I do not believe a petroleum company like this should be placed in the middle of a residential neighborhood, but that is for the local government to determine," Boxer said.