The South Coast Air Quality Management District's top brass faced a frustrated crowd at a town hall meeting Wednesday, during which more than 100 South Los Angeles residents criticized the agency's inability to say whether fumes from an oil field are hazardous.
Some of those gathered in an auditorium at the Doheny Campus of Mount St. Mary's College cradled Styrofoam model heads pierced with sewing needles or bound in rope to demonstrate ailments they believe are linked to the oil pumping operation: dizziness, chronic fatigue, severe headaches and nose bleeds.
Barry Wallerstein, the agency's executive director, assured the crowd that air samples taken on the land Allenco Energy Co. leases from the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles have not shown dangerous levels of toxic substances.
Flanked by seven of his top officers, Wallerstein said more air samples will be taken in what he described as a matter of "extremely high priority for us."
Monic Uriarte, whose 12-year-old daughter is among neighborhood children suffering from frequent nosebleeds, was less than satisfied with Wallerstein's comments.
"I'm very frustrated with the AQMD — even insulted because until now, they did nothing about complaints from our community," she said. "Obviously, they're here because of all the negative attention they are getting in the media and from elected leaders."
The meeting came less than a month after U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), with support from Rep. Karen Bass (D-Los Angeles), intervened and asked federal environmental officials to ensure the safety of the neighborhood.
Allenco has declined to comment on its operation.
On Wednesday, residents and environmental activists received additional help from Los Angeles City Atty. Mike Feuer, who confirmed that his office is investigating possible violations of city statutes and ordinances by the oil company.
"The city attorney's probe is great news — and changes the way we have traditionally approached contaminated sites and polluting facilities," Martha Dina Arguello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility/Los Angeles, said in an interview.
"Regulatory agencies such as AQMD can spend years trying to prove harmful effects in what some critics describe as a 'delay game,'" she said. "But the city attorney has far more tools at hand to deal quickly with problems."
Residents say they have suffered from respiratory ailments, headaches and nosebleeds since 2010, when Allenco ramped up production at its wells more than 400%.
Neighbors complained to state air quality officials 251 times over the next three years. The South Coast district responded by issuing 15 citations against Allenco for foul odors.
New extraction technologies and rising prices for crude oil are motivating a revival of old oil fields across Southern California.