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Damon Nagami’s Blog

Protecting Southern Californians From In-Community Oil Drilling

Damon Nagami

Posted August 5, 2009 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice

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Baldwin Hills Oil Field

Many Californians already know about offshore oil drilling.  The controversial issue was in the spotlight during this summer's tense negotiations over California's budget, when the Assembly thankfully nixed a backroom deal to allow drilling off the Santa Barbara coast for the first time in four decades.

What many Californians don't know, however, is that onshore oil drilling is alive and well - and is happening right now in our own backyards.

In Southern California, ground zero for what's known as urban or "in-community" oil drilling is a two-square-mile expanse of sweeping canyons and ridgelines known as the Baldwin Hills.  Although oil companies have been drilling there for decades, up until very recently no health or safety regulations were ever put in place to govern drilling operations despite two neighborhood evacuations in 2006 due to toxic gas leaks.  In the meantime, the surrounding communities have grown tremendously - to the point where over a million people now live within a couple miles of the oil fields.

This is alarming because, as my colleague Amy Mall has blogged about frequently, oil drilling operations use and produce toxic chemicals known to harm people's health.  These chemicals also pollute the air in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOC), greenhouse gases, and particulate matter.

Predictably, local government's failure to regulate the oil fields led to the disaster in 2006, when noxious gas emissions forced hundreds of people to evacuate their homes.  The outcry from the community prompted the County of Los Angeles to adopt emergency measures and eventually propose a set of health and safety regulations known as a community standards district, or CSD.

Unfortunately, the oil company, PXP - the same company behind the current offshore drilling debacle in Santa Barbara - dragged its feet during the environmental review process and forced the County to do a sloppy rush job.  As a result, the County ended up approving an inadequate set of regulations that allowed a vast expansion of drilling activities without enough oversight or environmental or safety protections.  NRDC and other groups immediately filed suit.

After nine months of hard-fought litigation, our efforts are finally starting to pay off.  On Tuesday, the County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a motion - authored by Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas - to initiate a study on how the CSD can be strengthened, and to propose public hearings on potential amendments.  And earlier today, the Los Angeles Superior Court denied PXP's motion to dismiss our lawsuit and three other similar lawsuits brought by community groups.

These are two huge wins for the community, but we're not out of the woods yet.  What we need now is action.  The County needs to follow through and upgrade the CSD's health and safety protections.  PXP needs to be a good corporate neighbor and work with the community instead of alienating it.  Let's capitalize on the momentum we've started to gain this week.  After enduring years of toxic fumes, these communities deserve a breath of fresh air.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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