West Adams Neighbors Come Together to Oppose the Drillers Next Door

A crane peeks out from behind a makeshift wall recently put up by Freeport-McMoRan at the Murphy Drilling Site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
A drilling rig peeks out from behind a sound barrier that was recently erected by Freeport-McMoRan at the Murphy Drilling Site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

“So, those are not water trucks we see coming through the neighborhood?” asked an older gentleman enjoying the sunny Saturday afternoon with friends outside one of the men’s homes in the West Adams neighborhood.

He was referring to the numerous heavy trucks ferrying enormous containers of acids and other drilling-related equipment and materials to the oil and gas drilling sites run by Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas (FM O&G) in the area.

“Hardly,” I said, telling them about some of the issues raised at the emergency community meeting earlier that day regarding FM O&G’s activities at the Murphy Drill Site (located at 2126 W. Adams) and their plans to begin drilling and redrilling several wells at the Jefferson/Budlong site at the end of the month.

The 300+ residents that had attended the meeting, I explained, were deeply concerned about loud noises and alarming odors coming from the Murphy site since the latest round of drilling began in late November of last year.

And, it wasn’t the first time they’d been unhappy with their neighbor.

Back in 2004, similar complaints were lodged with the fire department and the city when redrilling began at two of the 27 wells on the 3-acre Murphy site. But now, newer techniques for well-stimulation that entail pumping thousands of gallons of acid into the spiderweb of pipelines that run horizontally underneath much of the neighborhood have stirred even more fears. Citing the more than 50 underground pipelines emanating from the wellhead at the Jefferson/Budlong site alone, neighbors worry that the community could be devastated if something were to go wrong.

Pipelines emanating from the drill site at Jefferson/Budlong.
Pipelines emanating from the drill site at Jefferson/Budlong. For reference, Vermont runs down the middle of the diagram, USC is at bottom right, Hoover is the main street at right, and the main street bordering the area at the top is Adams.

The gentlemen took that in for a moment.

“They’re drilling for oil? Right here?” asked one, demanding to see my camera and the photos that I had taken outside the Murphy site.

“Oh yeah…” mused another, after seeing the photo of the rig (at top), noting that he had heard some people in the area made a little money off drilling under their property.

But most of them hadn’t known that, until last week, drilling had been underway just a handful of blocks from where they were standing. They weren’t particularly happy to hear about it, either, and wondered why they hadn’t been informed.

There are a few reasons for that.

For one, the walls around the sites are pretty high and are adorned with a substantial amount of landscaping to help the sites blend in with the neighborhood. And, the new sections of wall appearing along Adams (visible above), although apparently installed as sound barriers, serve the function of hiding tall drilling rigs.

That is by design — the city requires that facilities be as concealed as possible so as to be “reasonably protected against public entry, observation or attraction” (see p. 586). And, extraction facilities are not particularly beautiful and can appear somewhat ominous when bustling with activity and drilling is underway.

First Street, Los Angeles City oil field circa 1900. Courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.
Gone are the days when derricks might have populated your front yard. First Street, Los Angeles City oil field circa 1900, courtesy of the Seaver Center for Western History Research, Los Angeles Museum of Natural History.

But, the concealment also makes it harder for neighbors to discern (and, therefore, monitor) what is happening behind the nicely landscaped walls.

Unless you had a view overlooking a site, as the home next to the Jefferson/Budlong site does (below), it might never occur to you that oil was being drilled just feet from where you were standing.

The view from the back porch of the house next door to the Jefferson/Budlong drilling site. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The view from the back porch of the house next door to the Jefferson/Budlong drilling site. It’s quiet right now, but FM O&G is looking to begin drilling there later this month. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The house overlooking the Jefferson/Budlong site. Until a fire last month, residents had to contend with a tremendous amount of noise, a former tenant said. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
The house overlooking the Jefferson/Budlong site. Until a fire rendered the home uninhabitable last month, residents had had to contend with a tremendous amount of noise, claimed a former tenant. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

Which leads to the second reason why neighbors were unaware of FM O&G’s operations: namely, FM O&G hasn’t been particularly eager to introduce themselves to the community.

Representatives from FM O&G did have to appear before the Zoning Administration back in September, after neighbors complained about both their bad behavior in the area (illegally painting curbs red, “misting” cars and homes in the area with oil, parking on and crushing sidewalks, constant loud noises, etc.) and the lack of public notice regarding drilling activities.

The knuckle-rapping they received from Zoning Administration didn’t seem to have much of an effect, however.

According to members of the Redeemer Community Partnership, one of several churches that have been active on the issue in the area, FM O&G’s most recent application for permits to drill at the Jefferson site was replete with requests that public hearings on the matter be waived. (*for text of one such letter, see below)

When neighbors did hear from FM O&G in October, it was in the form of flyers asking them to oppose a proposal by City Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Mike Bonin that would ban extreme methods of extraction within the city.

Signage at the Murphy Drill Site offer little information about what's going on behind the gates and fail to mention that the site has been operated by Freeport-McMoran for many months now. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
Signage at the Murphy Drill Site offers little information about what’s going on behind the gates and fails to make clear that the site has been operated by Freeport-McMoRan — not PXP — for many months now. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

For those whose residences or properties do not fall within a 1500-foot radius of the wellhead or
within 500 feet of the path of the well and are therefore not required to be notified of drilling activities, information about who runs the site and what is going on there is hard to come by.

Even signage on both the Jefferson/Budlong and Murphy sites is somewhat confusing, with the largest signs still referring to Plains Exploration & Petroleum (PXP), the corporation bought by FM O&G last spring.

For those lucky residents who are given the required 30 days’ advance notice regarding plans to drill, their ability to do anything about it or learn more about the chemicals being trucked into the community and pumped under their homes is limited. Thanks to Senate Bill 4 (SB-4), corporations are now required to publicly disclose some basic information about the chemicals used in their extraction operations, but they don’t have to do so until drilling has been completed, months later.

And, while some might take heart that a new rule adopted by the Air Quality Management District (AQMD) last year requires that the agency be given 24-hour notice prior to the commencement of drilling, well completion, or other such activities at a site, unless agents are at the facility doing the monitoring themselves, there is no guarantee that the operations are being conducted safely.

Resident and co-founder of CoWatching Oil LA, DonnaAnn Ward, for example, recently reported a suspicious odor to the AQMD only to find that the odor was the least of her worries. The agent that came out to investigate the complaint discovered that, due to a leak, he was getting a natural gas emissions reading that was 40 times higher than the allowable limits.

What disconcerted Ward was that, “…No one knew [the leak] was happening…If I hadn’t called, it simply would have gone on.”

And, the fact that FM O&G is not working with the fire department and other important players in the community to either keep them informed of operations or help create contingency or evacuation plans in case of an emergency makes her and other concerned residents very uneasy.

A young boy reads about the practice of fracking at the emergency community meeting held last Saturday at Holman Church. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog
A young man reads about the practice of fracking at the packed emergency community meeting held last Saturday at Holman Church. Sahra Sulaiman/LA Streetsblog

The gentlemen I had been speaking with looked troubled.

They wanted to know what could be done to halt the extraction operations.

It’s a tough case, I told them.

While both Freeport and AllenCo — whose site north of USC may be permanently shuttered — lease land from the Archdiocese and pay the Church hefty royalties, that’s where the similarities end.

AllenCo had racked up a long list of violations over several years’ time, including as many as 250 health complaints. Not only was the case clear-cut, AllenCo is a local and comparatively small corporation in the world of oil and gas giants.

Freeport-McMoRan is a multi-billion dollar (and somewhat infamous) transnational corporation that has been in the extraction business of one form or another for over 100 years. And, until Ward placed her call to the AQMD earlier this month, they had been violation-free at both sites (see AQMD records here and here).

Right now, all they are technically guilty of is being a somewhat unneighborly neighbor.

The men shook their heads, not sure what else to ask. One finally pointed at my bike and asked if I preferred to do my crime-fighting on two wheels.

“Oil corporations are responding to demand,” I shrugged. “If you want to decrease the demand for oil, then you have to use less of it, right?”

He burst out laughing and clapped me on the shoulder.

“That’s good thinking,” he said, half laughing at me and half laughing with me.

He is not the first to have found that line of thinking amusing.

“Well,” I smiled, taking my leave. “You gotta start somewhere.”

* * * *

*An excerpt of Freeport’s July 5, 2013 request to the Zoning Administration that a public hearing regarding drilling at the Jefferson site be waived:

Freeport-McMoRan Oil & Gas LLC respectfully requests approval to use the above referenced controlled drill site to drill and re-drill three (3) wells as more particularly describe in the materials submitted herewith…Applicant wishes to draw your attention to the last Associate Zoning Administrator’s Finding of Fact, that “the current conditions of operations at this location are effective in reasonably mitigating any possible impact of the use of the site for drilling operations.” (ZA Case No. ZA-17528(PA3), dated April 22, 2008…Because of this Finding, a public hearing was waived in 2008.

Accordingly, as was done in 2008, Applicant respectfully requests that the public hearing in this matter be waived. If a public hearing is set, Applicant’s representative requests that the matter not be set for hearing on the following dates: August 14, 2013 through August 25, 2013.

  • Mike

    One curiosity is that if 2126 W Adams is the correct address, it is in the West Adams HPOZ. Are they going to have to install historically accurate 1920s oilwells? Or do they get a variance?

  • sahra

    That would be kind of amazing, but since this particular oil drilling district wasn’t granted until the early 60s, I doubt it is an issue… Residents are more concerned that, at the moment, it seems like Freeport is trying to expand its boundaries to a semi-landscaped, enclosed park area on the south end of the property. But who knows — maybe pulling the HPOZ card could be one approach to dealing with them…

  • MAS

    The injunction the LA City Attorney is seeking against Allenco would close the well only until Allenco complies with all safety & environmental regulations and establishes that their operation is safe. The City Attorney calls this a “permament injunction,” but that does not mean a permanent closure of the well. I think it means that there is no time limit on the injunction. Instead, the injunction would stand until Allenco meets regulatory criteria.

    The text of the court filing requesting the injunction is here:
    http://www.scribd.com/mobile/doc/197105931

    Also, the injunction has not been granted yet. So far it is just a court filing making a request.

    I would hazard the guess that Allenco’s decision to shut production down is part of bargaining strategy with the City Attornery and others, during which they will upgrade facilities to some extent, and maybe bargain over some regulatory criteria. I also would not be surprised if Allenco, which is a smaller operator, ended up selling the operation to bigger muscle, such as Freeport McMoRan.

  • sahra

    True, I should have been clearer in the language, thanks. Although, if there are any that are likely to be shut permanently, AllenCo’s will be it. And I agree with your suggestion that they may be the ones to bow out themselves. I’m also little surprised there hasn’t been more angst aimed at the Archdiocese in that case, or the AQMD, for that matter. Feuer’s filing points a few fingers, but the community’s angst seems more focused on AllenCo.

    These cases are interesting in that I hope they begin to spark a larger discussion of the cost of domestic oil production on health and safety, what drives demand, and the potential for alternatives. I really haven’t heard that at all over the last several months. I always thought of that disconnect when heading out to the CSD meetings at Kenneth Hahn State Park. It is almost impossible to get there safely if you want to ride a bike there (and public transit is out). When I bike it, I have to do this little illegal move, riding a couple hundred yards back down the on-ramp to the bridge crossing La Cienega (entering the park), so I can dart into the neighborhood just to the west of the park. It’s actually safer than trying to ride with traffic on La Cienega. It makes no sense to me. Not that a few more people not driving will suddenly make neighborhood drilling disappear, of course. But it seems that taking a breath and taking a larger look at what makes urban drilling worth a corporation’s while might be in order if there is to be longer-term change.

  • MAS

    Your point about the attention given to Allenco as opposed to focusing on the SCAQMD and State level agencies is very important. Allenco is one problem that needs to be addressed, but forcing proper regulatory oversight and action is an even bigger need because it is the way to get to Allenco and all other problems associated with oil & gas production. Feuer’s lawsuit seems to be precisely about pushing forward the scope of regulatory enforcement. Regulations have no teeth until they are forced to have teeth.

    The Murphy Drill Site at 2126 W Adams is also, I have been told, land owned by the Archdiocese. That needs double-checking.

    I agree with you, too, about the connections to transportation issues (cars, public transit, bikes, etc). But it is also important to remember that the petrochemical industry is a many headed hydra. Gasoline is only one part of it, and same with natural gas.

    The Center for Land Use Interpretation in Culver City did a wonderful exhibit on urban oil production in LA a couple of years ago, and another exhibit on the petro-chemical landscape of Houston. Oil & gas refining also produces an enormous range of other chemicals for plastics, fertilizers, and so on. And the landscape for it is horrific.

  • Christian

    Bottom line: what are the next steps for resistance or organizing against the drilling?

  • sahra

    Yes, to the best of my understanding, the land is still owned by the diocese at the Murphy site. I did stumble across a document where Freeport was noting that the city still had PXP in its records as being the owner of operations there. But I don’t believe land ownership changed hands. And why would it…? Back in 2004, the Archdiocese was making $300,000 a year off that lease. I’m sure that number’s gone up quite a bit by now.

  • sahra

    you can keep up with what community members are planning at their facebook page, here: https://www.facebook.com/CoWatchingOilLA

  • ridiculous

    Sahara, petroleum is used to make what? do you wear make-up? Does your bike have tires? do you have a hot water heater? Do you have clean water? I suggest you do a little more research. Your blog is bunk and full of false information. You are in more danger riding your bicycle than standing next to that “drilling rig”, which it is not btw.

  • sahra

    There’s no question — almost everything we do and the creation of everything we own (and even ingest) is facilitated by fossil fuels. And, if you must know, when I was in Wisconsin and it was -20 degrees a few weeks ago, I was eternally grateful for access to fossil fuels. But it doesn’t mean that it is a sustainable way forward or that that dependence doesn’t come at a tremendous cost to us and to the environment. That isn’t a controversial statement — that is just the way it is. Given that, the question should not be “how can we drill for every last drop in residential neighborhoods?” but “how can we invest in developing alternatives for the long term?”

  • ubrayj02

    I eat hot dogs but that doesn’t mean I want a hog farm in my front yard.

    I ride a steel bicycle but that doesn’t mean I want my kid’s classroom next door to an industrial scale smelting company.

    This blog in, in fact, not bunk and it is full of a lot of true and honest information and opinions.

    Your chosen screen name identifies you for exactly what you are: ridiculous.