Air quality regulators say that an urban oil field blamed for chronic respiratory illnesses and nosebleeds in a South Los Angeles neighborhood is modifying its operations to prevent leaks and upgrade air pollution controls.
Allenco Energy Co., which voluntarily suspended operations Nov. 22 at the request of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), plans to inspect and repair tanks, remove an open-air drain and sump from service, and upgrade air pollution control systems, South Coast Air Quality Management District officials said.
District engineers will continue air sampling at Allenco during the upgrades and upon restart of operations.
At a town hall meeting last week attended by more than 200 residents of the University Park neighborhood, Barry Wallerstein, executive officer of the district, said Allenco "takes the community's concerns seriously" and "could resolve the problem within a few months."
Allenco is the focus of investigations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the South Coast district, the city attorney's office and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which leases Allenco the 2-acre site about a half-mile north of the USC campus.
Since operations were suspended, average concentrations of non-methane hydrocarbons at the site have fallen by 60%, and there have been few reports of headaches, itchy throats, nausea and nosebleeds, air district officials said.
The Los Angeles County Department of Health, however, is skeptical the modification plan will succeed and has called for a comprehensive audit of the facility.
"Every square inch of that field must be examined — pipes, sumps, valves, even oil well casings —to find sources of emissions," county Environmental Health Director Angelo Bellomo said. "Then the company must decide whether to invest in the best available technology to abate those odors, or shut the facility down."
Bellomo said an audit conducted at Allenco's expense would help allay frustrations over the air quality district's inability to determine the extent of the health hazards posed by the facility.
Petroleum-based pollutants at the site appear to be well below levels that would lead to long-term health effects. But Bellomo believes exposure to low levels of those pollutants is affecting the health of the community.
The air district said it views the county's request as unnecessary, and pointed out that the county health department lacks regulatory authority under state law.
"The district and the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources conducted a comprehensive joint audit of the facility this fall," district spokesman Sam Atwood said.
Residents have suffered from respiratory ailments and nosebleeds since 2010, when Allenco ramped up production at its wells more than 400%.
Neighbors complained to district officials 251 times over the next three years. The district responded by issuing 15 citations against Allenco for foul odors.
A team of environmental officers was recently overwhelmed by toxic emissions while touring the site. Among them was Cyrus Rangan, director of the county health department's bureau of toxicology and environmental assessment.
At the town hall meeting, Rangan was applauded when he said, "I'm in full agreement with what the community has been saying."