Environment & Science

South LA oil field scraps effort to expand drilling, but neighbors remain uneasy

A view from the porch of a
A view from the porch of a "buffer property." The city of Los Angeles originally conditioned the oil company's use of the Jefferson Park drill site on ownership and maintenance of 2 structures and 2 vacant lots next to the production field. At the request of an earlier operator, that requirement was dropped, though the proximity to oil operations was supposed to be recorded into the deeds for the buffer properties. The two buildings immediately next to the oil field now are apartment buildings.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
A view from the porch of a
Andres Cantero is a second-year law student at USC who moved into an apartment building in January; he didn't know that he lived next to an oil drilling site. "My first gut reaction is that I don't feel as safe," he said. "I'm just shocked. That's also a reaction."
Molly Peterson/KPCC
A view from the porch of a
Alina Evans lived in an apartment on Van Buren Place for two months. When she moved in, she found that at night, the Jefferson Drill Site was "lit up like mission control."Her apartment was several feet from the fenceline with Freeport McMoRan's drill operations.
Molly Peterson/KPCC
A view from the porch of a
Houses sit less than an armspan away from the fenceline for the Jefferson Drill Site, along Budlong Avenue. Neighbors to the Freeport McMoRan-operated site say they're concerned about the activities underway at the Jefferson site.
Molly Peterson/KPCC

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An email from the oil company Freeport MacMoRan that it would scrap its application for permission from the City of Los Angeles to expand drilling operations at a production facility surrounded by homes in the Jefferson Park neighborhood was terse.

The decision to withdraw the application was prompted primarily in response to the steep decline in commodity prices. Withdrawal of the application will not affect normal daily production operations, which will continue consistent with how the facility has been safely operated for over 50 years.  

That last phrase, emphasizing the company’s long history, has been the cornerstone of Freeport's ongoing contention that oil and gas production is routine at the Jefferson Park site. The company made that case in an application to the City of Los Angeles’ Planning Department three years ago when it sought to sink one new well and re-drill two others at the facility.

Last fall, it made the same case to a zone administrator reviewing the application before a packed hearing room at City Hall. 

“It’s conventional, and it’s routine, and there’s nothing different about this than has taken place before,” said L. Rae Connet, a consultant working for Freeport.

This is normal for the oil business, the company says. But people living near the site say even if the company has withdrawn its application to expand operations, they’re not done asking questions about why it should be normal for the densely populated Jefferson Park neighborhood.

“It’s not as if your agency is the only one to have jurisdiction.”

To bolster its case that drilling is safe, Freeport McMoRan has claimed plenty of oversight by public agencies. “This facility has an exemplary safety record,” Connet said, giving a fair litany of inspections over the last five years:

Written accounts gathered from those agencies don’t exactly match. L.A. City Fire records show one inspection, not four. LADWP says it has never inspected the site, ever. County Fire found three inspections, including one in response to neighborhood complaints; one happened after Connet testified. Air regulators confirmed 10 inspections, matching Connet’s description of 6 last year alone. Some of the inspection agencies found 8 violations of air quality and safety rules during that same time; Connet didn’t mention them.

Freeport’s critics point out this information’s hard to come by, and relatedly, that it’s hard to know where to take their problems.

“I have 20 years living in this house,” said Nina Galeta, who lives on the same block as the drill site, at the November hearing. “Most of the time I have to close all my windows and the door.  Because of the smell. And is worse when it’s hot and depends on the wind too.”

What’s a buffer house?

The debate over Freeport’s permit application also has exposed confusion about what the City of L.A. intended with the creation of “buffer properties.”

Shorter term residents, mostly students, now populate two houses directly adjacent to the site. Half a century ago, L.A. city planning’s original permit for the Jefferson site names those buildings and 2 vacant lots as  “buffer properties” to be maintained between drilling and the rest of the neighborhood.

You can touch the Freeport wall from the porch of Josh Moore’s apartment building. “It sucks. It’s loud and annoying,” says Moore, a graduate student in music at USC. “When it’s running, it’s really loud, yeah. It just sounds like they’re revving truck engines all the time.”

Whatever the planning department meant by buffer properties, it’s not explaining now. (They didn’t respond to interview requests.) And about 15 years ago, without hearing, the city allowed a previous oilfield operator to sell the properties. The buyers put up new apartments on the vacant lots, boosting the number of people living within a few hundred feet of drilling operations.

It’s now the responsibility of these owners independent of Freeport to disclose the hazards of oil operations to tenants, says Freeport consultant Rae Connet. “The tenants are supposed to have that in their leases,” Connet said. “And if they don’t have it in their leases, then that’s an issue they should be raising with their landlord.”

Still, at least half a dozen current and recent tenants, including Josh Moore, say their leases don’t include that condition, and they say they moved in without knowing about the noises and smells.

“It’s not like it’s unknown. It’s not like it’s underground,” says Councilman Bernard Parks, who represents the area. “To move in and say, guess what? There’s an oil well and these are the things I want an oil well to do. That’s like going ass backwards.”

Other councilmen in other neighborhoods over the last half-century have responded differently, says Community Health Councils policy analyst Erin Steva, who analyzed case histories of oil facilities in West L.A., South L.A., and Wilmington. By comparison, she says, city officials required about 50 wells at the Packard Drill site, also operated by Freeport near the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, to be enclosed in soundproof material designed to looks like an office building. In 2003, the city council voted to limit operations there.

“The Jefferson drill site is one of the closest sites to homes, so in and of itself that’s a reason to be concerned,” Steva says. “What we see there is fewer protections than we see in wealthier communities.”

Thirty-four wells still pump oil and gas out of the Jefferson Park site. Some of its neighbors say that’s reason enough for the city of L.A. to take a closer look at the conditions planners have placed on the site - and possibly add new ones.