LA Times Opinion: I grew up next to an L.A. oil well. California can protect others from what I went through
BY NALLELI COBO
I grew up 30 feet from an oil well. We couldn’t open the windows of our South L.A. home because of what was in the air. I couldn’t play outside for more than a few minutes without feeling sick.
At the age of 9, I started organizing to shut down the drilling that was making me, my mother, my sister and our community sick. I helped found a grassroots campaign called “People Not Pozos,” Spanish for “wells.” Over a decade later, it’s a campaign I and others are continuing across California as toxic drilling continues in our midst.
When I was about 11, I was diagnosed with asthma. By the time I turned 19, we had shut down the drilling in our South L.A. neighborhood, but not before I was diagnosed with stage 2 reproductive cancer. I lost my ability to bear children as a result.
After three surgeries, eight minor procedures, three rounds of chemotherapy and six weeks of radiation, I was cancer-free as of two years ago, at 20.
My experience, like that of others who live in neighborhoods polluted by oil drilling, is a constant reminder that those in power do not value our health and well-being. It’s a signal that some communities are expendable, that our lives don’t matter as much as the fossil fuel industry’s profits.
Last year, the California Legislature and Gov. Gavin Newsom finally acted to protect people in communities like mine. They enacted Senate Bill 1137, by Sen. Lena Gonzalez (D-Long Beach), which prohibits new oil extraction within 3,200 feet of a home, school or community. But the oil industry responded by spending tens of millions of dollars to qualify a ballot referendum that puts the law on hold until voters can decide the issue in November 2024.
Meanwhile, the drilling goes on, putting more people at risk.
It’s time for the Legislature to go further. A bill up for its first committee hearing Tuesday would help hold oil drillers legally responsible for the harms they cause by drilling so close to where people live. SB 556, also by Gonzalez, would make oil drillers presumptively liable for illnesses linked to their operations within the setback zone.
Scientific evidence cited in the record supporting the setback legislation shows that living near oil and gas production increases the risk of asthma, other respiratory problems, preterm births, high-risk pregnancies and cancer.
Stanford researchers found in a 2020 study that pregnant women who lived near oil wells in the San Joaquin Valley were up to 14% more likely to experience a spontaneous preterm birth, the leading cause of infant death, and that the repercussions were most pronounced among Latina and Black women. A 2021 review of studies by World Health Organization researchers found that people who live near oil and gas drilling are exposed to harmful pollution and at greater risk of developing several different types of cancer. And a California Geologic Energy Management Division scientific advisory panel concluded with a “high level of certainty” the same year that living near oil and gas extraction is associated with “adverse perinatal and respiratory outcomes.”
SB 556 would help Californians who develop such conditions hold oil drillers responsible if they have lived within 3,200 feet of extraction and companies did not use the best available technologies to protect them. Fossil fuel drillers operating within the setback zones would face penalties of $250,000 to $1 million in addition to damages if they can’t prove they took measures to mitigate pollution or that something else caused the condition.
The legislation would essentially shift the burden of proof from communities to polluters. If oil drillers choose to continue to ignore the scientific evidence that they’re sickening surrounding communities, they would assume the risk of significant legal and financial penalties.
Protecting us with laws like SB 556 is the job we elected lawmakers to do. All Californians have a right to breathe clean air, drink clean water and live in a healthy environment. But those with the least resources and political power are most likely to bear the brunt of pollution and climate change.
In the Los Angeles Basin alone, 1.7 million people live within a mile of an active oil or gas well, more than 200,000 live within 2,500 feet, and more than 32,000 within 328 feet.
Oil drillers claim that restricting crude oil production will raise California’s already high gasoline prices. But economists say the state’s gas prices have nothing to do with local production levels.
We can’t continue to prioritize corporate profits over the health and well-being of Californians. The fight to put people before pozos persists.
Nalleli Cobo is an environmental justice advocate and the winner of the 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize for North America.