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L.A. City Zoning Officer puts off decision on Urban Oil Field

A city zoning officer put off a decision Tuesday on allowing a South Los Angeles oil drilling project after hearing more than two hours of testimony from dozens of residents calling for a formal environmental review of the plan.

Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Inc., known as one of the world’s biggest producers of copper and gold, wants to drill a new injection well and re-drill two other wells at 1371 W. Jefferson Blvd. The site known as the Jefferson Drill Site was established in 1965, and Freeport wants to be exempted from doing a formal environmental impact review as required under the California Environmental Quality Act.

More than 100 people packed the Office of Zoning Administration’s public hearing at City Hall, many to protest Freeport McMoRan’s request for the exemption.

Some who said they live a mile or less from the site contend an environmental impact review is needed to make public what kind of chemicals are being used and their potential effects on neighboring communities.

Company representatives said the drilling will be done within the existing facility at Jefferson Boulevard and Budlong Avenue and does not exceed the number of wells already authorized there.

A consultant for Freeport McMoRan said no hydraulic fracturing was anticipated, nor was acidization or other unconventional well-stimulation techniques. The planned wells, she said, will use “conventional” drilling and extraction methods.

After more than two hours of testimony, zoning officer Maya Zaitzevsky opted to delay her decision until Jan. 5, saying she needed more time to review information recently given to her. 

She said she has limited ability in deciding how oil drilling and fracking activities are handled in Los Angeles. She urged the residents to work with city leaders to help sort out issues regarding oil production and fracking.

“Whether it’s right or wrong, whether it’s too limited — it’s not for to me to change or to make a judgment on it. It is what it is,” Zaitzevsky said, addressing opponents of the drilling project.    “And I definitely understand your concerns that it seems sort of, you know, strange to act on a case in 2014 or (2015) based on zoning code provisions that were developed in the 1950s or ’60s and haven’t really been modified in that period of time,” she said. “I’m not a legislative body. I cannot change laws. I can only act on what I have before me,” Zaitzevsky said. 

An aide to City Councilman Bernard Parks, whose district includes the site, asked for a decision to be put off for 30 days to enable Freeport and residents to meet and discuss concerns about the project.

Council members seeking to regulate fracking in Los Angeles recently faced a hiccup after a planning official failed to hand up ordinance that would halt such practices in the city. The planning official delivered a report, saying the city lacks an “expert in petroleum and natural gas engineering or geology” to guide the drafting of a fracking ban.

Residents told Zaitzevsky today operations at the Jefferson site created “deafening” noises. They said they believed chemicals used at the site may have damaged nearby trees and plants.

An area resident, Anna Parks, said her children attended a summer camp about 300 feet away from the site.

“As their mother, it’s my responsibility to know what they are breathing during that time” and to make sure they are not exposed to harmful fumes, Parks said. “I don’t have a way to research that and find out what they’re breathing, so I’m here to respectfully request the city require an environmental impact report and an extensive study be done.”

L. Rae Connet of Petro Land Services, who spoke on behalf of Freeport, said “we are aware that there has been heightened concern” about oil drilling both nationally and locally, and the company takes those concerns “very seriously.”

She said the company responded in writing to residents who expressed concerns.

“We don’t mean to diminish any of those concerns, but it’s also significant that this applicant is complying with the law and is listening to its neighbors,” Connet said.

“Unfortunately people like to paint one facility with negativity that comes from another facility. It’s important that we look at the track record of this facility,” she said. “This facility has an exemplary safety record.” 

Representatives of Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling, or STAND-LA, who oppose the project, contend  that “noxious fumes, loud noises, heavy truck traffic and the injection of corrosive acids” would harm the surrounding community.

Freeport issued a statement this week saying their proposal “is minimal in scope and duration and falls far below the threshold for which an environmental review under CEQA (the California Environmental Quality Act) is triggered.”

The 120-day-long project “is consistent with the historical types of operations for which the site has been zoned since the 1960s,” according to the company with nearly $19 billion in revenue last year.

Two of the proposed wells would fall under the “Oil Well Class B” category, which are used for “the subsurface injection into the earth of oil field waste, gases, water or liquid substances,” according to city planners.

A third proposed well would be classified as an “Oil Well Class A,” which is “intended to be used for the production of petroleum.”

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