By: Angela Johnson Meszaros, General Counsel
With our partners, Center for Biological Diversity, Communities for a Better Environment, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, we released an analysis looking at the startling amount of chemicals used to drill and to “stimulate” oil wells in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. While many chemicals were used, the analysis focused on toxic air contaminants – chemicals that are known to have significant negative health impacts. But before I get into discussing the data, I’m going to take a slight detour to set the larger stage about why this matters.
Where you live matters. It matters in a lot of ways, big and small. Where you live can make your life easier or harder; longer or shorter. A recent article published in the New York Times told the story of a man who failed to get a life-saving liver transplant because his home was too far away from the nearest transplant center. Richard Knox of NPR explains that where you live not only impacts how long your life will be, but how many healthy years you have to live.
A similar story is being told here in California – the Contra Costa Times reported on data that showed that a person’s life expectancy may differ by as many as 16.2 years, based on her county zip code. And in Los Angeles County, the data gathered in 2013 “Health Atlas for the City of Los Angeles” shows clear health disparities between higher-income Westside neighborhoods and the poorer communities of Central and South LA. If you’re curious about how life expectancy differs throughout Los Angeles County, you can enter a zip code into the online tool developed as part of the Health Happens Here Initiative. PSR-LA is part of this Initiative, developed by The California Endowment, which is part of an expansive effort to understand and address place-based health gaps.
As for the air quality in the South Coast Air Basin, millions of people are living with unhealthy air, and an incredible number of people die and suffer from acute and chronic illnesses caused by the Basin’s on-going failure to meet the federal clean air standards. Here’s some perspective: in 2007, more than twice as many people in LA County died as a result of the failure to meet the air standard for particulate matter than died in car crashes. The estimated 2,310 hospital admissions, 1,108,220 lost school days, and the more than 398,000 lost work days caused by exposure to ozone and particulate matter in excess of federally set standards speaks to the scope of the social and financial strain placed on families in the region.
Now add into the mix the growing effort to extract more oil in Los Angeles County and Orange County. “We’re just getting started, really,” Stephen Harris, a consultant to Occidental Petroleum Corp, said in 2012. Harris, among other experts, projected a boom in drilling stemming from newly recoverable oil held in the Monterey Shale, the Los Angeles part of which is said to hold “more oil per square meter… than any other oil-producing basin on the planet.” More drilling and extraction means more opportunity for routine and accidental releases of a range of air pollutants.
Let’s come back to the analysis released yesterday. By reviewing the first year of data collected under a new rule adopted by the South Coast Air Quality Management District, records show that oil companies have used 44 different air toxic chemicals more than 5,000 times in Los Angeles and Orange Counties during the past 12 months. More than half of the wells are located within 1,500 feet of a home, school, or medical facility.
While the data collection’s scope is limited, the information does provide insight into the oil and gas industry’s previously hidden reliance on air toxic use in LA and Orange Counties. Furthermore, the data highlights the danger posed to communities that are exposed to these chemicals, and focuses attention on the critical need for policies that address the harm caused by the routine and accidental releases of these pollutants.
For example, hydrofluoric acid is a main ingredient for both “acidizing” wells and used as part of routine maintenance of wells. This chemical causes a range of both acute and chronic health problems including harm to skin, eyes, sensory organs, respiratory system, gastrointestinal system and liver, brain and nervous system, immune system, kidneys, reproductive system and cardiovascular system; it is also a mutagen and developmental inhibitor.
Finally, the oil industry’s common use of “trade secret” claims hides the true scope of the danger posed to local residents by oil and gas well operations. The industry claimed “trade secret” protections more than 5,000 times in order to conceal information about the chemicals being used, with 1,037 of those protected chemicals being identified as an air toxic. Another 663 of the “trade secret” claims provided no indication of whether the substance was an air toxic or not.
In total, industry disclosed using more than 45 million pounds of air toxics in reported wells.
Where you live matters. People living adjacent to oil and gas wells are living with the very real possibility of serious health conditions due to exposures from air toxic chemicals that are known to have significant health impacts. And ultimately, once the oil is extracted, refining and burning it causes very real health impacts for everyone.
Eliminating exposure to toxic air pollutants is important for progress toward addressing the environmental health causes of illness and premature death. PSR-LA is working with a group of impacted communities and advocates to put in place policies that would do just that. In particular, we are working to prohibit the use of these chemicals in oil wells in communities in the City of Los Angeles. If you are a doctor, nurse, or allied health professional we hope you will join our efforts on this by becoming a PSR-LA Health Ambassador!
***Find more coverage of the report from KPCC’s Molly Peterson:
“44 toxic chemicals used in local oil and gas operations, report says”
Take Two “FAQ: Scientists highlight 44 prevalent toxic chemicals in Los Angeles”