Tired of Wells Threatening Residents’ Health, a Small California Town Takes on Big Oil

The Cymric Oil Field, near Bakersfield, where pumpjacks stretch for miles, extracting heavy crude from thousands of feet below the Earth's surface. (Julia Kane/InsideClimate News)

In Arvin, a small, agricultural town at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, pollution is a pervasive part of life. Pesticides sprayed on industrial-scale farms, fumes drifting from the region’s ubiquitous oil and gas wells, exhaust from the trucks barreling down Interstate 5 — it all gets trapped in the valley, creating a thick haze.

Arvin’s residents are especially concerned by the oil and gas wells sprinkled throughout their community. These wells, sometimes drilled and operated in close proximity to neighborhoods, schools, and health care centers, release a toxic mix of pollutants into the air.

Studies have linked proximity to oil and gas extraction to a wide range of adverse health effects, including increased risk of asthma, respiratory illnesses, preterm birth, low birthweight and cancer. Yet California has no statewide rule on setbacks — a regulatory gap that is rare among the nation’s top oil producers.

The oil and gas industry wields considerable power here, and has consistently attempted to thwart new regulations, including public health protections. The Western States Petroleum Association and Chevron are currently the two top lobbying groups in the state.

But in Arvin, a small group of mostly low-income Latino residents is taking on the big oil companies in a David-versus-Goliath fight to protect the environment and their health. Their struggle is unusual in Kern County, where pumpjacks sucking heavy crude from the parched floor of the San Joaquin Valley stretch for miles.

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Fresh off several local victories, a small environmental justice group called the Committee for a Better Arvin has united with other front-line community groups — including many in Los Angeles, a hub for urban drilling — to press California to create a statewide setback rule. Their slogan: “No drilling where we are living.” The coalition is urging state lawmakers to vote for a proposed law on setbacks, which has had trouble gaining traction, but which supporters say still may reach the Senate floor if an amended version comes to a vote in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water next week.

‘How Could This Have Been Allowed to Happen?’

When Estela Escoto, president of the Committee for a Better Arvin, moved from Los Angeles to Arvin with her husband and three children in 2006, they hoped that it would be “a nice, peaceful place to live, kind of like a small town in Mexico,” Escoto said, speaking through a Spanish interpreter.

They soon learned that Arvin residents deal with some of the worst pollution in the country. Escoto joined the Committee for a Better Arvin, a newly-formed group of community members who wanted a cleaner, healthier city. They tackled water quality issues, pesticide use, and the odor from a nearby chicken manure composting facility, but for many years, despite the pollution from the wells, they left the oil and gas industry alone.

Photo: Arvin, CA with pumpjack in foreground
A pumpjack looms near Arvin's high school. (Julia Kane/InsideClimate News)

Then, in 2014, people on a residential street not far from Arvin’s high school began feeling sick. They smelled gas and experienced nosebleeds, headaches, dizziness and nausea. Air sampling from inside homes on the street revealed levels of toxic gas 13 times higher than what was deemed safe by the Environmental Protection Agency. The cause: a leaky pipeline operated by Petro Capital Resources that was used to carry raw natural gas. Eight families were forced to evacuate their homes, unable to return for eight months.

It was, for many Arvin residents, a tipping point. They began demanding answers. How could this have been allowed to happen?

For Jose Gurrola Jr., the Petro Capital Resources gas leak “really brought the issue of environmental justice and environmental racism to the forefront,” he said. A self-described “homegrown kid,” he decided to run for mayor in 2016 after realizing that “these things aren’t normal for every community, for every race,” he said.

Just over a year into Gurrola’s term, Arvin unveiled proposed updates to its oil and gas ordinance, which had been written in the 1960s. The changes the city sought were modest — among other protective measures, the proposed ordinance would prohibit new oil and gas drilling in residential zones and create a 300-foot buffer between new drilling and homes, schools and hospitals.

Kern County’s Board of Supervisors weighed in, discouraging Arvin from creating its own regulations. They advised the town to rely on a county ordinance and environmental impact report instead.

Map: CA Fracking Areas

But Kern County’s ordinance had a major flaw: The result of a deal with three oil and gas trade associations — the Western States Petroleum Association, the California Independent Petroleum Association, and the Independent Oil Producers’ Agency — it allowed regulators to rubber stamp permits for new oil and gas extraction based on a single blanket environmental impact report.

The Committee for a Better Arvin and other community and environmental groups sued the county. Three years later, the courts would rule in favor of the committee, but in 2017, as Arvin was considering its own oil and gas ordinance, the outcome of the lawsuit was still uncertain. Despite pressure from the industry groups and the county Board of Supervisors, Arvin forged ahead.

Members of the Committee for a Better Arvin began a grassroots campaign in support of Arvin’s proposed ordinance. “We walked down all the streets. We visited many homes so that we could explain the problems that were going on,” Escoto said.

Photo: Estela & Roberto Escoto
Estela Escoto, president of the Committee for a Better Arvin, and her husband, Roberto. (Estela Escoto)

She and other activists showed their neighbors videos filmed using optical gas imaging, which made the invisible air pollution spewing from the wells near their homes suddenly visible.

The oil and gas industry groups fought back, but on July 17, 2018, the council passed the ordinance — the first of its kind in Kern County.

“It might seem like it's small, only 300 feet, but for us, it was a really big accomplishment,” Escoto said.

As Arvin’s environmental justice movement gained momentum, a similar story was also playing out in the greater Los Angeles area. In Los Angeles County alone, over 1.5 million people live within 2,500 feet of an operational well — a majority of them non-white. There, organizations like Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND-L.A.) also had been advocating for local setbacks.

An environmental justice group called the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE) realized that people in the San Joaquin Valley and people in the greater Los Angeles area had a shared interest.

“We decided that we wanted to come together to define a statewide strategy and lead the fight on a setback to protect the health of frontline communities,” said Ingrid Brostrom, assistant director of CRPE.

Together with several other organizations, they approached Democratic Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi. He authored Assembly Bill 345, or AB 345, which mandates that California create a setback based on health and science data and environmental justice concerns by July 2022, and that it consider a 2,500-foot setback for schools, playgrounds and other public places where children are present.

Before the pandemic struck, Escoto traveled from her home in Arvin to join a group of front-line community members as they walked the halls of Sacramento, encouraging legislators to support the bill. “It’s very important that this law passes,” she told them. “We have a lot of people in my community who are sick because of the pollution.”

AB 345 passed in the California Assembly in January, but the legislation was voted down during a hearing in the state Senate Committee on Natural Resources on Wednesday, during which many of the bill’s supporters say they were unable to call in to register their support.

The bill’s sponsors are amending the proposed law, which the committee will likely reconsider on Aug. 12.

In California, “We're often talking about how we are leading the nation in the fight against climate change and the fight for our environment,” Muratsuchi said. “And yet on these common sense proposals to protect low-income communities of color from the well-documented, adverse health impacts of oil and gas developments in their backyards, we are behind many other states and communities across the country.”

Escoto said she remains hopeful. All the successes the Committee for a Better Arvin has had are proof that grassroots action works, she said.

“We all have the right to live a healthy life, without all of this contamination,” she said. “I believe we all have that right.”

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Read Julia Kane's full story, originally published on Aug. 3, by InsideClimate News, a nonprofit, independent news organization that covers climate, energy and the environment. Sign up for the ICN newsletter here.