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Oil Spill Threatens Los Angeles Neighborhoods and River Revitalization Efforts

Damon Nagami

Posted May 15, 2014

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Early this morning, an oil pipeline burst in northeast Los Angeles, spewing more than 10,000 gallons of crude 20 feet into the air and blanketing a half-mile area with oil. Thankfully, only a handful of minor injuries were reported, but fire department officials said the oil was “knee-high” in some areas, and that some nearby businesses were affected.

Broken pipeline provokes "knee dip" oil spill near L.A.

#US latest: Broken pipeline provokes "knee-dip" oil spill near LA. Photo via @XrayJ76

— José Miguel Sardo (@jmsardo) May 15, 2014

Although this spill appears to have happened in a largely industrial area, hundreds of homes in the community of Glendale can be found less than a thousand feet to the east, and the Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River lies a couple thousand feet to the west. The potential health impacts to residents from exposure to crude oil are serious. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon blogged about residents in onshore areas closest to the spill experiencing headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. And later that year, as OnEarth Magazine’s early coverage showed in harrowing detail, the massive Kalamazoo River pipeline disaster struck, exposing numerous communities in Michigan to similar symptoms as a million-plus gallons of heavy Canadian tar sands oil erupted into the waterway. In some ways, it's an apt comparison: the pipeline that spilled here today is owned by Plains All American and likely carried heavy California crude from Bakersfield. While that stuff is not quite as nasty as the tar sands spilled in Michigan, they are very similar in nature.

Oil-related impacts to the LA River would be devastating as well. The spectacular seven-mile Glendale Narrows stretch of the river has a soft bottom and lush vegetation, providing habitat for wildlife including shorebirds such as herons, egrets, and kingfishers, as well as riverside paths for walkers, joggers, bicyclists, birdwatchers, and nature lovers from all over Los Angeles. Exposure to toxins from crude oil can take a lethal toll on river life, as well as cause genetic damage, liver disease, cancer and harm to animals’ reproductive and immune systems.

Reports so far don’t seem to indicate that this oil spill has impacted residents or reached the LA River, but the incident should serve as a wake-up call to elected officials and public health professionals, as well as the long list of river and park advocates, agencies at the local, state, and federal levels, and community and environmental groups, including NRDC, that have long been working to restore and revitalize the river. Today’s spill shows that oil production and transportation infrastructure in and near residential areas and the LA River, including pipelines, truck routes, and freight rail lines for crude-by-rail, are a threat to public health as well as ongoing river revitalization efforts.

The oil industry is bringing the risk of oil transportation ever closer to our back yards via more pipelines, more oil trains, and more proposals for depots in California and around the country. As my colleague Anthony Swift points out, this spill is part of a broader national pipeline safety problem. What's more, crude-by-rail shipments have grown forty fold over the last five years, as my colleague Diane Bailey explained last month, and the last year alone has seen more spills and accidents than the previous thirty combined.

Communities clearly need added protections and safeguards. We need our elected officials to take a close look at what added safeguards need to be in place to prevent a spill that could have serious public health impacts for communities and severe environmental consequences for the Los Angeles River. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti would be a natural fit to lead this effort, given his interest in creating healthier neighborhoods and enthusiastic support for LA River revitalization. NRDC would be glad to assist with such an effort.

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Janet JacobsonMay 15 2014 05:51 PM

It SHOULD be a wakeup call but Eric Garcetti's beard is too busy spending half a million in city funds of the Mayoral mansion, Eric is too busy being besties with Jay-Z, Jose Huizar is too busy trying to destroy the roads in DTLA… ect.

Hopefully Rep. Adam Schiff, whose district that is, will ram his fist up the butts of the issue causers.

A Proud CanadianMay 18 2014 05:17 PM

Hi Damon,
I'm repeating a response that I've left with Anthony with you as well. The nrdc blogs seem to repeat so I guess the responses should as well. Enjoy!
First of all I’m with you on most of this Anthony. Shut down the Californian crude industry. Their product doesn’t just remotely resemble the oilsands….. in fact that they exceed oilsand CO2 emissions. This is long overdue.

Here’s something I passed along to a fellow contributor on the site not long ago about the California oil industry:
“During the first three months of 2013, California imported slightly under 90,000 barrels of Canadian oil via train. From early January to the end of March this year, that figure topped 700,000 barrels, an increase of roughly 700% over just one year. For years the Bakersfield area has supplied its own horrendously carbon intensive heavy oil. But now they need more Canadian heavy or dilbit to replace local supply, Particularly now that the price justifies the rail transport costs to get it there.”
I go on to muse (pointedly):
“Since the California Heavy oil reserves are depleting, seems like more Canadian oil is making it to your state. The cokers need feed I guess. Perhaps more oil from the historically largest import country for California….. which is Saudi Arabia?”
Then a suggested action:
“You should Contact Feinstein, Pelosi, Boxer, Waxman et al and let them know this. Demand that the California Heavy oil imports be halted and the industry be shut down”
Then some cheekiness:
“On second thought….. Do the Koch brothers own those cokers?….. probably not. Forget about it.”
So what do you think about this Anthony? First things first and lead by example. Have your political leaders halt the heavy oil industry and heavy oil upgrading/refining industries of California. Your reserves are dropping but your process facilities are still churning away.

Also I wonder what will happen now that the oil leak is stopped. Will your political leadership:
A) Ensure the pipeline is fixed/replaced and improve oversight
B) Have the oil moved by rail or truck. Perhaps increase imports from Canada. Perhaps from your non-boycotted friends in Saudi?
C) Shut down the associated refineries thus removing the need for oil
Lets keep an eye on this and discuss later.

A Proud Canadian

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