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Safeguard, Baby, Safeguard: Settlement of SoCal Lawsuit Increases Protections Against the Dangers of Urban Oil Drilling

Damon Nagami

Posted July 7, 2011 in Curbing Pollution, Environmental Justice

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Oil drilling near homes in the Baldwin Hills.  (Photo credit: NRDC)

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors approved a far-reaching settlement that promises increased safeguards for thousands of people living near the active, two-square-mile oil field in the Baldwin Hills area of south Los Angeles.

As I’ve blogged about before, oil drilling operations – including those of Plains Exploration and Production Company (PXP) in the Baldwin Hills – use and produce toxic chemicals that harm people's health and pollute the air.  The community’s fears became a harsh reality in 2006, when uncontrolled emissions of noxious gas forced mass evacuations and prompted the County to propose, for the first time, a set of health and safety regulations known as a community standards district, or CSD, for the oil field.

In our view, however, this new CSD did not provide adequate protection to meet the community’s standards, nor did the environmental impact report that studied it pass muster under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). That’s why NRDC and four other litigants – Community Health Councils, the City of Culver City, Concerned Citizens of South Central Los Angeles, and the Citizen’s Coalition for a Safe Community – sued the County in November 2008.

Bruising, protracted litigation ensued for the next two and a half years.  Settlement discussions progressed slowly, in fits and starts.  Because of the complex issues and multiple parties involved, the court took the unusual step of recruiting the state Attorney General’s office to mediate the settlement negotiations.  After multiple day-long mediation sessions and an extraordinary amount of effort by all of the parties and lawyers involved, including key contributions and leadership from County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas and his staff, the parties finally reached agreement last week.

This comprehensive settlement includes important mitigations and benefits to the community such as reduced drilling of new oil wells over the next twenty years, increased air quality monitoring, stricter noise limits, and mandatory and recurring health and environmental justice assessments as new drilling progresses.  A chart explaining the additional protections afforded under the settlement and comparing them to the protections the community previously had (or lacked) can be found here.

As is usually the case with a compromise, no one got everything they were hoping for.  However, all of the parties agree that this settlement guarantees the community significant new protections, and that resolving the litigation will allow the parties and other stakeholders to shift to a more collaborative and constructive dialogue moving forward.

This settlement is a hard-fought victory for the affected communities. But our work is far from done.  We will continue to remain engaged in ensuring that the CSD’s provisions and the terms of this settlement are fully implemented and enforced.  We will also monitor how these safeguards are working in the coming years to make sure the communities in the Baldwin Hills remain protected to the fullest extent possible.

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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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