LA’s Urban Oil Wells Have Probably Been Making People Sick For A Century

The catastrophic methane gas leak outside of Los Angeles has forced local energy companies to revisit their antiquated strategies for storing and transporting natural gas. But there’s a big and potentially more disastrous problem lurking beneath LA’s surface, according to a new video from Vice. The city is literally one giant oil field, and it’s been slowly releasing carcinogens into the air for decades. Vice did a great series a few years back on LA’s urban oil wells, which have been extracting oil in plain sight and in relatively densely populated areas for years. But after the environmental disaster at Aliso Canyon, where a natural gas facility was using a former oil well for storage, many groups are asking the city to reassess the safety of drilling for oil in LA neighbourhoods. Vice reporter Daniel Hernandez talks to some of the people who want to shut it all down.

Environmental justice groups claim that people who live near active oil fields are prone to a wide range of chronic symptoms like headaches, nosebleeds and stomachaches, all likely attributed to dangerous chemicals which are escaping oil extraction sites — some of the same chemicals that Porter Ranch residents say are making them sick. In certain parts of the city just the smell of oil extraction itself is enough to make you woozy; the asphalt-like scent can certainly be overpowering. (Just go to the La Brea Tar Pits to see for yourself.) Oddly enough, when Hernandez goes to visit an oil facility in Signal Hill, the guy who works there says he can’t smell it because he “doesn’t have the best sense of smell”. Convenient!

The oil industry is so firmly entrenched in LA that many of the sites are grandfathered in and not subject to newer environmental laws that would restrict schools and homes from being located so close to the wells. But that also makes it hard to isolate clusters of cancer and other sicknesses. According to Bhavna Shamasunder, from Occidental College’s Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, it’s difficult to attribute a particular set of symptoms to oil extraction because oil extraction is literally everywhere. Why is this OK, and how long will Los Angeles let this be the norm?