Allenco Energy Co. facility (photo: Nick Ut, Associated Press)
Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer sued Allenco Energy Inc.on Tuesday to keep shut oil wells it operates between the University of Southern California and downtown while investigators look into complaints of illness among nearby low-income residents.
Allenco closed the wells in November after Senator Barbara Boxer (D-California) called for a suspension of operations. Boxer made her plea after members of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suffered some of the same symptoms as residents during a tour of the facility.
The closure by Allenco was voluntary while it negotiated with the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) for an agreement that would allow its pumping to resume. But a number of critics think the agency has been complacent and unwilling to challenge the company despite 251 complaints over a three-year period and the issuance of 15 citations for various violations. They want something more (pdf) than self-reporting by Allenco on air quality around the site.
Residents complained to each other about odd neighborhood smells, nosebleeds, headaches and illness for awhile before discovering that five once-dormant oil wells next door were re-animated by the introduction of a controversial drilling process called acidization. Those complaints have grown to include respiratory illness, chronic fatigue, asthma and various allergies.
The city attorney alleged in his complaint that “despite frequent warnings and repeated notices of violations of environmental and health and safety laws, Allenco has refused to repair numerous defects, and ignored or defied the efforts of regulatory agencies to correct multiple deficiencies at its oil facility.”
The complaint called the site a “public nuisance” and accused Allenco of failing to upgrade its fire suppression systems, never filing a required hazardous materials response plan, skipping an inventory of hazardous materials and not filing a business plan for four years. Allenco leases the property from the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
Allenco had closed the wells in 1999, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, when market prices and oil dissipation made it unprofitable to continue. But technology advances, including acidization, made the site profitable again. Production resumed in 2005 and increased 400% between 2009 and 2010, according to the state. That was about the same time neighborhood complaints skyrocketed.
Acidization injects large amounts of hydrochloric or hydrofluoric acid into wells to dissolve rock formations and allow easier access to gas and oil. “Acid stimulation” has flown under the radar as many critics of oil and gas drilling focus on the dangers from hydraulic fracturing (fracking). But many consider acidization a greater threat to health and the environment.