LA’s oil wells can harm human health, not many residents know about them. Will new state law make a difference?

Don Smith says for many years, he never really noticed he lived next to an active oil drill site. Then while at a playground near the Murphy drill site in South LA with his granddaughter, he saw something odd behind the trees that surrounded the facility. He had recently attended a community meeting where the drill site was discussed. Could it be right there, 50 yards from his bedroom window?

“They provided this background where I could see fumes rising up and out of the pipes from this place,” says Smith, who has lived at the adjacent St. Andrews Gardens apartments for a decade. “That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Things soon became personal for Smith. His granddaughter was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. He’s convinced she got sick because of how close they live to the oil wells.

“I believe it was brought about by her exposure to these chemicals,” Smith says. “Why else would an otherwise healthy elementary school girl get something like this? It doesn’t make sense.”

His granddaughter is in remission. Even though he’s convinced the drill site is to blame, proving that has been historically difficult.

There is, however, new research suggesting that living near an oil well is particularly harmful for one’s health. Jill Johnston, who studies preventive medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC, recently completed a study that looked into the health effects of living near a couple of these sites, including Murphy.

“We found similar effects in terms of impacts on lungs, as you’d find with second-hand smoke,” she says.

An estimated 2 million Californians live within a half-mile radius of a drill site, something that Governor Gavin Newsom referenced last month during a press event in Wilmington, where he unveiled a plan to phase out new urban oil drilling projects in California. Under the governor’s proposal, oil companies would not be allowed to tap new wells within 3,200 feet of sensitive areas such as homes, hospitals and schools. Companies operating existing wells in urban areas will soon also be required to use more eco-friendly technology, such as EV or lower-emission trucks. 

A spokesperson from E&B Natural Resources Management, which operates the Murphy site, declined to be interviewed for this story. But in a statement, they said the company complies with every local, state and federal regulation, and that “every barrel consumed by Californians not produced in California must be tankered into our crowded ports from countries completely exempt from all our environmental regulations.”

“Not only will Californians lose their jobs, see decreased local tax revenues and higher gas prices, and export more of their wealth to foreign countries, but greenhouse gas emissions will actually increase as well [under Newsom’s proposed regulations],” says Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, a trade group.

Despite movement on the issue, the governor’s proposal would not force existing urban oil operations like at Murphy to shut down, something that doesn’t sit well with Richard Parks, founder of Redeemer Community Partnership.

“The governor's action is, on one hand, encouraging,” Parks says. “But it has very little for a neighborhood like this in South LA, that has wells which are well-established. It does not bring a close to this toxic land use that's fundamentally incompatible with this neighborhood.”

Parks has worked with other community groups to decommission other urban wells, including the AllenCo and Jefferson Park drill sites.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story during the U.N. Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow.