South L.A. residents ask pope to intervene in fight over oil operation

Residents of a low-income South Los Angeles community are asking Pope Francis to intervene with the Los Angeles Archdiocese to prevent an oil operation from reopening two years after its noxious emissions sickened neighbors.

Residents are sending the pope a videotape urging him to help stop AllenCo Energy Inc. from resuming operations on two acres it leases from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Pope Francis issued an encyclical a month ago calling on policymakers to take urgent action to pursue alternatives to fossil fuels.

On the tape, residents tell stories about foul odors that led to nosebleeds and respiratory ailments, afflictions that ceased after AllenCo closed down its operation in the University Park neighborhood, about half a mile north of USC, to fix leaks and improve its equipment.

Their complaints, reported by The Times in 2013, led to city, state and federal investigations, including an on-site inspection that sickened U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials and resulted in more than $99,000 in fines.

AllenCo says it has since made improvements that are designed to eliminate the harmful emissions and comply with state and federal regulations.

After an EPA investigation, AllenCo agreed to spend about $700,000 on upgrades, including certification that all flame and combustible gas detectors, fire-suppression systems, atmospheric tanks, pressure vessels and piping were up to code. It also agreed to fully enclose a 30-foot-long open trench to prevent noxious mixtures, mostly of oil and water, from being exposed to the atmosphere.

"We're superclose to reopening," said Tim Parker, vice president of operations at AllenCo.

Before resuming operations, however, AllenCo's improvements must be tested or approved by federal, state and local agencies — and those hurdles have not been cleared. Seven of 11 idle wells at the facility, which was up for sale in 2012, have yet to yield a satisfactory demonstration of their mechanical integrity, state officials said.

Neighbors say they don't believe the improvements will stop the harmful emissions, and they don't believe the company because it denied for years that its emissions were dangerous.

In the video, residents read from a prepared letter asserting that AllenCo "has made a mockery of the regulatory system and was allowed to operate despite their gross negligence, while our community suffered the consequences."

Among the eight people narrating the video, shot mostly outside the facility's entrance in the 800 block of West 23rd Street, was Gabriela Garcia, 33, who has lived less than a block away for 14 years.

"My 12-year-old daughter hasn't had a nosebleed or dizzy spell since AllenCo closed down," said Garcia, a community organizer with the nonprofit group Strategic Action for a Just Economy. "Our goal is to persuade the pope to call the Los Angeles archbishop and say, 'Hey, this is an opportunity to put my encyclical into action at the ground level.'"

Others on the video include Monic Uriarte, 50, and her 14-year-old daughter, Nalleli Cobo, who was among neighborhood children who had been suffering from frequent nosebleeds.

"Until AllenCo shut down, our family calendars were filled with my daughter's appointments with cardiologists, neurologists and gastroenterologists who never could agree on the source of her symptoms," Uriarte said.

Los Angeles Archbishop Jose H. Gomez was unavailable for comment. In a prepared statement, the archdiocese said that although it "cannot unilaterally change the leases to stop oil drilling and has no control of the site, the health and well-being of the entire community is always a priority; that is why we support public safety and air quality regulations."

The site was donated to the archdiocese in the 1950s by descendants of Edward L. Doheny, one of Los Angeles' early oil barons. AllenCo bought the oil production facility on the site in 2009 and within a year increased production more than 400%, from 4,178 barrels to 21,239 barrels in 2010.

The neighborhood complaints began that same year. Over the next three years, the South Coast Air Quality Management District logged 251 complaints. The agency responded by issuing 15 citations against AllenCo for foul odors and equipment problems.

AllenCo voluntarily suspended oil production in 2013 at the request of U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), pending completion of investigations by the EPA, the air quality district, the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, the city attorney's office and the Los Angeles Fire Department.

Since then, residents have lodged only a handful of complaints with the air quality district about headaches, itchy throats, nausea and nosebleeds.

AllenCo is trying to negotiate a settlement of the lawsuit filed against it by Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer. The lawsuit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court accuses the company of ignoring years of evidence that it exposed neighbors to harmful noxious fumes and odors.

In May, the AQMD issued a permit allowing AllenCo to restart operations. However, the company still has to comply with the requirements of the EPA, the state Conservation Department and the city Fire Department.

The company must notify the EPA that it has completed all the improvements at least 15 days before restarting operations.

louis.sahagun@latimes.com
Twitter: @LouisSahagun

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