University Park residents fear oil drilling site

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Youth activist Ashley Lazaro, 14, at the shuttered drilling site in University Park. (Photos by Alexandra Garreton)

Youth activist Ashley Lazaro, 14, at the shuttered drilling site in University Park. (Photos by Alexandra Garreton)

The streets of South LA’s University Park neighborhood are lined with old Victorians, palm trees and bougainvillea. Close to several houses, large apartment buildings, day care centers and schools, including a high school for developmentally disabled children, stands a tall, beige gate.

“If anybody was walking by they’ll see a normal building,” said Ashley Lazaro, 14, who grew up nearby. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, maybe it’s part of the school or is part of some other building.” But behind that high wall is a closed oil-drilling site whose leaseholder wants to resume production. Residents and activists in the low-income, predominantly Latino community are fighting to shut it down permanently.

“It’s not fair that we have, like, a freeway and then we don’t need another problem such as the oil well,” Lazaro said. “It’s not safe.”

The oil production facility dates to the 1960s. It was relatively quiet until 2009 when AllenCo Energy Inc. began leasing the site and quadrupled production. Residents soon began complaining about foul odors, heavy nosebleeds, nausea and headaches.

A local affordable-housing organization called Esperanza Community Housing Corp. conducted health surveys in the neighborhood and collected hundreds of complaints.

“There were smells of petroleum, sometimes of gas, sometimes like burned eggs, sometimes like oranges, sometimes like flowers,” said one complaint from longtime resident Silvia Hernandez, 68.

Silvia Hernandez, 68, has lived in University Park for more than 40 years.
Silvia Hernandez, 68, has lived in University Park for more than 40 years.

According to a report from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the sweeter smells resulted from masking agents used to cover the stench coming from the site.

At first Hernandez thought the smell was coming from inside her home. Inspections from the landlord and the fire department concluded it wasn’t. Only later did she learn about the drilling site just a couple blocks away from her house. For Hernandez and her four kids, the odors also brought illness.

“Their throats swelled up, a lot of nosebleeds, their eyes hurt, their stomach. They vomited,” she said.

One of Hernandez’s sons would sometimes wake up at night with nosebleeds, his pillow soaked in blood.

AllenCo Energy Inc. declined to comment for this story. At the end of 2013, AllenCo shut down the site temporarily at the request of Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and the health complaints dropped off.

Sandy Navarro is the project manager for Esperanza’s anti-drilling campaign.
Sandy Navarro is the project manager for Esperanza’s anti-drilling campaign.

Sandy Navarro, project manager for Esperanza’s campaign “People not Pozos” (“People, not Oil Wells) is disheartened by the possibility of AllenCo resuming oil production.

“The idea of going back to where we started, you know, it’s alarming,” Navarro said.

The relatively small drilling company has already spent more than a million dollars in settlements, penalties and facility improvements to comply with state and federal regulations. AllenCo has to jump over a few more hurdles before reopening, including a civil lawsuit filed by Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer.

“If my family lived in that neighborhood and my kids had suffered the way kids in that neighborhood allegedly had suffered, I’d want to be sure that there was some change in the way the operational facility was happening, so that there would not be those problems in the future,” said Feuer.

Feuer’s lawsuit lists several health, safety, and even fire code violations at the University Park drilling site. AllenCo is now in preliminary talks with the City Attorney’s Office to resolve the case and reopen.

Community organizers and residents like Hernandez say they’ll resist. “It’s hard to fight, but at the very least we’re trying, so the kids don’t suffer the same illnesses we do,” Hernandez said.