EPA chief to tour EJ suburb studded with oil rigs

By Anne C. Mulkern | 08/19/2021 05:28 AM EST

A residential neighborhood abuts an oil refinery in the Wilmington section of Los Angeles. EPA Administrator Michael Regan is visiting the area today to highlight environmental justice. Peter Bennett/Ambient Images/Newscom

The oil industry funded a baseball field next to drilling rigs in the Los Angeles suburb of Wilmington. But the air is so polluted that some kids can be seen sucking on asthma inhalers as they play, according to local activists.

Today, EPA Administrator Michael Regan will visit the area to see the environmental effects that one of the largest concentrations of West Coast oil refineries has on Wilmington’s residents. Nearly 97% of the 55,000-person population are people of color. Many are of them are financially impoverished.

Regan and Rep. Nanette Diaz Barragán (D-Calif.), who represents Wilmington, will tour the area and hear from local activists.

Community members have plenty to say.

"The proposition for … the Biden administration is: What are the investment and strategies that is going to help us transition away from fossil fuel, that is going to deliver both the health benefits, the climate benefits, and also the job benefits for communities like Wilmington?" said Bahram Fazeli, director of policy and research at Communities for a Better Environment.

"Wilmington is a really very profound example of how a community is disproportionately impacted by pollution from fossil fuel," Fazeli added.

The visit occurs as the Biden administration works to address the needs of disadvantaged communities by ingraining environmental justice in federal policies.

Fazeli pointed to health issues caused by pollution from oil drilling and refining and by trucking goods out of the nearby ports on congested freeways.

Fazeli said he wants the Biden administration to "put on the table" a plan that includes transition for oil company workers and investment in the communities.

"We’re taking them to Wilmington and southeast LA, and they’re both very poignant and really eye-opening examples of environmental injustice," he said. "In Wilmington, you have communities that are living right across the street from massive sources of pollution."

It’s not the first time a presidential adviser has toured the area. In 1999, Fazeli said the Clinton administration sent a liaison from the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Later, Communities for a Better Environment engaged in conversations with the Obama administration. And every California governor for at least the last 20 years has sent a Cabinet secretary, Fazeli added.

But Fazeli said he’s optimistic. Compared with a decade ago, there’s more emphasis on addressing climate change.

There’s a "recognition that facilities that cause public health [issues] for the local front-line communities, or the local schools, or local hospitals, are actually now part of the problems in terms of creating climate change," Fazeli said. "So there’s a convergence and a growing understanding that local problems are in fact a global problem when it comes to fossil fuel sources."

Refineries in Wilmington are owned by Marathon Petroleum, Phillips 66 and Valero, which has two facilities. There’s also a Marathon Petroleum location in nearby Carson, another LA suburb.

Rock Zierman, CEO of the California Independent Petroleum Association, a trade group for drillers, said the industry has concentrated its oil rigs into designated areas around Wilmington.

"You go back 20 years ago, and there were lots of wells in residential areas," he said. "You’ve had tremendous consolidation where they redrill those wells from a single site and plug the old wells. So there’s been a movement away from the higher number of wells being spread out, into being concentrated into an actual oil and gas field."

He pointed to one site occupied by Warren Energy, which he said is developing a roughly 1.5-acre area in Wilmington.

"So there’s been a movement away from exposure in the past 15 to 20 years," Zierman said

Ashley Hernandez, 28, grew up in the area. Now she’s the Wilmington youth organizer with Communities for a Better Environment, and she recalled suffering health problems as a girl.

"One of the first experiences that I had living within this site was having an eye infection, or what I would consider it is an eye infection," Hernandez said. "I had to miss around two weeks of school."

During a visit to the pediatrician, she said, the doctor said, "You live in an area where there’s so much going on that it’s really important that you sleep with … your windows closed."

She said her mother and sister attended a meeting organized by Communities for a Better Environment. They learned that other people were having similar health problems.

"A lot of kids were dealing with either rashes or, like, hollowed-out eyes, nosebleeds, and this was also a part of my history growing up here," Hernandez said. "I had low heart palpitations. I had nosebleeds that would take over entire pillowcases. I had entire classrooms of peers in elementary school dealing with either asthma or nosebleeds."

"So if there wasn’t a refinery explosion that was impacting us, it was us really being the canaries out in this mine field," she added. "That’s really the Wilmington experience."