Tired of wells that threaten residents’ health, a small California town takes on the oil industry

In Arvin, California, a small, agricultural town at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley, pollution is a pervasive part of life, according to Inside Climate News.. 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. This year the American Lung Association ranked Bakersfield, just 15 miles northwest of Arvin, as the worst metropolitan area in the U.S. in terms of annual particle pollution.

Arvin’s residents, like people in many other parts of California, 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 hydrogen sulfide, benzene, xylene, hexane and formaldehyde into the air.

Studies have linked living near 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—serious fears for the more than two million Californians who live within a quarter-mile of operational oil and gas wells.

The Committee for a Better Arvin have united with other frontline community groups—including many in Los Angeles, a hub for urban drilling—to press California to create a setback rule for the entire state.

In a test of whether grassroots action can really reshape California’s close relationship with the oil and gas industry, the coalition is urging state lawmakers to vote for a proposed law on setbacks that is now pending in Sacramento. Their slogan: “No drilling where we are living.”

AB 345 it us some assurances, namely, that there will be some sort of statewide setback, and the rule will be complete by a certain date.

Oil and gas industry groups have been pushing back hard. They claim that there is no scientific basis for the 2,500-foot setback that environmentalists and public health advocates are demanding, and that AB 345 will limit oil and gas production and harm jobs and tax revenue in the state.

In a statement, Rock Zierman, the California Independent Petroleum Association’s chief executive officer, said: “An arbitrary setback would not mean the state will consume less energy, but it will result in less in-state production, fewer jobs and taxes and, in turn, a greater reliance on oil imported from foreign countries.”

Tracy Leach, director of Kern Citizens for Energy, a industry-funded group, said “There should be studies, and there should be science to come up with setbacks.” Leach is also the president and chief executive officer of Providence Strategic Consulting, Inc., a Bakersfield-based communications firm that represents the Western States Petroleum Association.

Leach argued that the 2,500-foot setback is arbitrary. “I don’t understand where that came from. It needs to be based on data,” she said.

More than two dozen studies from across the country have linked proximity to oil and gas development to a wide range of negative health effects. Most recently, a Stanford University study looked at whether exposure to oil and gas extraction was a risk factor for preterm birth for women in the San Joaquin Valley. The study found that women who lived near wells during their first and second trimesters were 8 to 14 percent more likely to experience a preterm birth, after other known risk factors were taken into account. The association was strongest for Hispanic and Black mothers.

AB 345 passed California’s Assembly in January. Now, the legislation is up for a vote in the state Senate’s Committee on Natural Resources and Water on Aug. 5.

Regardless of what happens with AB 345 at the state level, Arvin will continue to fight for a cleaner, healthier future for its residents, and that means taking on the oil and gas industry. After the city’s ordinance passed, the California Independent Petroleum Association poured $20,000 into the small community’s city council election, hoping to unseat the public officials that had supported the ordinance.

It didn’t work. Arvin’s oil and gas ordinance remains in effect, and now the city is applying for funding through California’s Community Air Grants Program to better monitor and improve their air quality.

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