Operators of a controversial urban oil field in South Los Angeles voluntarily agreed Friday to halt operations pending completion of investigations prompted by complaints from neighbors, who blame noxious vapors for persistent respiratory ailments, headaches and nosebleeds.
The move comes a few weeks after U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) urged Allenco Energy Co. to suspend oil production in the University Park neighborhood, half a mile north of USC, “until the experts tell us it is safe for our most vulnerable populations.”
In a letter to Boxer, Allenco President Peter Allen agreed and said the decision to suspend operations was made “to give you and the residents in our area a greater sense of confidence in our ability to operate responsibly and to appropriately address any concerns.”
Barry Wallerstein, executive director of the South Coast Air Quality Management District, said that it “doesn’t happen very often that an operator voluntarily shuts down in response to concerns expressed by the community and its elected representatives — in this case, Sen. Boxer.”
He added that Allen “had committed to make changes in equipment that was responsible for those vapors leaving the facility.”
“He was quite sincere in resolving the problems and making the necessary equipment modifications,” Wallerstein said of Allen.
Allenco is the focus of ongoing investigations by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the South Coast air quality agency, the city attorney’s office, the county Department of Health and the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which leases the 2-acre site to the company.
“I appreciate the company’s decision to suspend operations,” Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer said. “Our investigation into the company’s compliance with the law continues.”
A team of federal and county environmental officers was recently overwhelmed by toxic vapors while touring the site, lending support to residents’ suspicions that odors from the facility are making people sick. The neighborhood surrounding the oil field includes homes and schools, as well as the Doheny Campus of Mount St. Mary’s College.
Complaints related to the facility increased in 2010, when Allenco boosted production at its wells by more than 400%. Neighbors complained to the air quality agency 251 times over the next three years. The air district responded by issuing 15 citations against Allenco for foul odors and equipment problems.
But frustrations over the air district’s inability to say whether fumes from the oil field are hazardous triggered the ongoing investigations aimed at determining the cause of the ailments, as well as the validity of Allenco’s operating permits and the archdiocese’s lease agreements with the company.
“Even while our operations are down, we will continue to work with the regulating agencies,” Allen said in his letter to Boxer. “We will continue to seek advice from the community, and we have already hired engineering firms and environmental consultants to help us improve our operations.”
Neighbors applauded the company’s decision.
“It’s a great victory for a community that has been living and suffering in the air plume of Allenco’s emissions,” said Nancy H. Ibrahim, executive director of Esperanza Community Housing Corp., a nonprofit affordable housing developer in the area bounded by the 110 Freeway, the 10 Freeway and USC.
Said Monic Uriarte, whose 12-year-old daughter is among neighborhood children suffering from frequent nosebleeds:, “What happened today is a lesson for neighborhoods across Los Angeles. Don’t give up.”