When Dolores López and her husband moved to south Los Angeles’ Wilmington neighborhood 23 years ago, they didn’t pay much attention to the small well that sat beyond the colorful bougainvilleas and fragrant lemon, pear, grapefruit and pomegranate trees in their backyard. They had sold land in Mexico to buy the property, which they deemed their “palace.”
“When we got here the backyard was all overgrown; we could barely walk into it,” says López, the mother of three and now a grandmother. “After we cleared it we realized it was there. I asked my husband, ‘Hey, what’s that? Is that part of the house?’”
In their backyard, less than an hour from Beverly Hills, Lopez and her husband had found a fully functioning oil well.
It’s a common occurrence across California. In Los Angeles, thousands of wells, also called pumpjacks, oil horses and pumpers, sit near homes, hospitals, schools, churches and sports fields. Hispanics in Los Angeles call them horses, dinosaurs, crickets and even “Godzilla.” Across the state, over 5 million people live near an oil or gas well. The vast majority of them are minorities.
Since López first moved into her home, the small oil pump has been switched out for a larger one — a 26 foot high Godzilla that looms above the backyard. It’s always moving, peeking over the fence whenever the family gathers for a barbeque or the kids go out to play.
There are now 5,700 active oil wells in Los Angeles, within a quarter-mile of 580,000 people. Across the state, 5.4 million people live near an oil well. Of them, 45% are Hispanic, 13% are Asian, and 8% are African American, according to a 2014 report by the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).
There are even a few in Beverly Hills.
But how did so many oil wells end up so close to predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhoods?
According to NRDC, the history goes back to the early 20th century, when racial covenants were used to block non-white families from buying homes in parts of the United States. These legally enforceable agreements banned the the sale and rental of property to certain groups of people, effectively excluding people of color from white neighborhoods. Even though the Supreme Court outlawed them in 1948, some of these contracts persist to this day.
“The property owners promised that they would not sell or rent to people of color because their neighbors could sue them, arguing that their own property values would be reduced,” said Linda Escalante, an NRDC government relations and communications specialist.
That explains why more affluent African-Americans settled in the Baldwin Hills neighborhood of Los Angeles - on top of the biggest oil field in the United States.
But some communities have begun to push back. Last year, a lawsuit was filed against the city in Los Angeles Supreme Court arguing that fewer protections were required for new oil drilling permits in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods than in white neighborhoods. Communities for a Better Environment is handling the lawsuit. In Wilmington and other parts of south Los Angeles, wells are closer to schools, parks and playgrounds and don’t have to be fenced in.
For Lopez, the worst part is the smell. There are days when the neighborhood reeks like a gas station. And then there are the trocas, trucks that collect the black gold from the wells every day, including weekends.
“That noise is really annoying,” said López, acknowledging she doesn’t really know what is being pumped out of the ground.
Whether or not the dinosaurs affect health is another question. That’s come into sharper focus recently as fracking has become a hot-button topic.
The California Air Resources Board (ARB) has been studying oil wells for 100 years, but says it’s still not clear how they affect health.
“The spread of oil exploration in California has raised concerns regarding equality and public health,” the ARB said in an email statement. “That’s why the ARB is sponsoring a preliminary study to determine the possible risks of living near oil wells and whether low-income people or minorities are most affected.”
Martha Dina, director of Physicians for Social Responsibility in Los Angeles, believes that oil wells so close to homes and schools are dangerous because of the toxic materials involved. “There are leaks. We know because people smell it,” she said.
Dina said she often sees neighbors suffering from dizziness, nausea and nosebleeds – the same symptoms suffered by residents of Porter Ranch, a wealthy section of Los Angeles evacuated during a massive methane leak earlier this year.
“I know communities near an oil well that have been complaining about these symptoms for three or four years. But there’s no official response from the companies or the local or state governments,” she said.
“In Porter Ranch they were moved out of their homes. They were paid to live in other places, they were paid to clean their homes,” Dina added. “This is a brutal example of environmental racism – different responses to a community that has money, and another that does not.”
López, too, worries for her grandchildren, who often play in the backyard near the well. “He’s always coughing and sneezing,” she says, about her grandson. “They’re doing tests because the doctor doesn’t know if it’s allergy or respiratory.”
And he’s not the only child that’s had respiratory difficulties. “My daughter had asthma from childhood,” she says, “and all the children in the neighborhood always carry their inhalers.”
For poor families who live near wells, there are few options. “They put them where the poorest people live,” López says, with a measure of resignation. “We don’t have the possibility to move somewhere else.”