By Joshua Frank
Perhaps you've driven past them at night: several towering panels lit up like a psychedelic art installation, with a 45-foot waterfall gushing down the side and onto the boulder-strewn, pedestal-shaped, very-much-manmade island. The brightly painted structures seem harmless enough–if a bit out of place several hundred feet offshore from Long Beach's affluent Bluff Park neighborhood–but what goes on behind the palm-lined façade is profoundly controversial and potentially very dangerous.
Built in 1965, the four THUMS islands–so named for the companies that first developed the sites: Texaco, Humble, Unocal, Mobil and Shell–were designed by esteemed landscape architect Joseph Linesch, who had a knack for turning blight into eye candy. While Long Beach's Gas & Oil Department (LBGO) operates the islands, a wholly owned subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum (known as Occidental Long Beach Inc.) is contracted to perform the work of extracting fossil fuels from beneath the ocean floor.
The THUMS islands include portions of Pier J in the Port of Long Beach, and were constructed from a goliath supply of stone from Catalina Island–640,000 tons of it–along with 3.2 million cubic yards of sand from Long Beach Harbor. The purpose was to exploit the vast reserves of the Wilmington Oil Field, which stretches 13 miles long and 3 miles wide, from onshore San Pedro to offshore Seal Beach. Since it was first discovered in 1932, 6,150 wells have been drilled in the oil field, with nearly 1,550 pumps still active.
It's estimated the Wilmington reserves originally contained 3 billion barrels of oil, with around 300
,000 million barrels left in the tank today. In 1940, Long Beach began to sink as a result of so much oil being drained from beneath the city. By the early 1950s, this so-called “subsidence” phenomenon was causing the city's elevation to drop by approximately 2 feet per year. The results were destructive: Streets cracked, pipes warped, and buildings became unsafe. The sinking even caused minor geological tremors. In 1953, Long Beach began injecting water into the oil reservoirs, and the subsidence stopped.
It's safe to say the wells have been a bit of a cash cow for Long Beach, accounting for almost 5 percent of the city's total budget–almost $80 million annually over the past two years alone. The city has used nearly every technique in the oil playbook to pump the liquid loot out of the ground, including the contentious practice known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking. The process involves shooting a virulent cocktail of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to force oil and natural gas to the surface. Fracking is typically utilized in tricky geological areas where other extraction methods can't get the job done.
In March, the Weekly obtained an internal two-page city document produced by LBGO that was meant to only be seen by the city's 11-member Sustainable City Commission, which reports to the mayor's office and advises the City Council. Titled “Hydraulic Fracturing in Long Beach,” the memo states that fracking was started on the THUMS islands in the early 1970s and has been practiced consistently in Long Beach since the mid-1990s, with a total of 196 wells fracked so far. The document goes on to say that “LBGO has followed all Federal and State regulations . . . [and] has safely conducted a hydraulic fracturing operation and, at the same time, successfully addresses many of the public concerns.”
With this odd memo, LBGO appears to be attempting to fend off internal critics as tales of fouled aquifers, toxic air pollution and earthquakes associated with fracking operations have made their way to California from places such as Oklahoma, Texas and Pennsylvania, where these types of problems have been well-documented. Citizens across the country, including many in California, want fracking banned outright. Their belief that the practice is unsafe is shared by many in the scientific community.
Retired geologist Dr. Tom Williams finds it's not only fracking that's cause for concern in Long Beach, but also all of the oil and gas operations. The oil-industry insider now advises various groups in the Los Angeles area that oppose fracking. “Long Beach is sitting on a bomb,” asserts Williams, a no-nonsense man who worked for more than 20 years with Parsons Oil & Gas and 10 years with the government of Dubai. “[An earthquake produced by the] Palos Verdes fault zone will eventually hit, and well cases will pop, and there'll be a massive spill.”
Williams' prediction isn't as far-fetched as you might think. A significant 6.4 magnitude earthquake struck Long Beach in 1933, the largest quake ever recorded to have hit the Southern California coast. (The Palos Verdes fault line, which slices directly through the Port of Long Beach, is estimated to have the potential for a 7.25 magnitude quake.) According to geologists, it's not a matter of if such an event will happen, but merely how soon. When a quake that large strikes, there's really no telling how much damage it will cause Long Beach's fossil fuel projects, especially the pipelines that carry oil below the seabed, up to 155,000 barrels per day, from the oil islands to onshore refineries in Torrence. (Spills do happen. In 2013, a leak occurred in the Port of Long Beach, and the THUMS lines were temporarily taken offline.)
The fight against fracking is spreading across California, with voters backing ballot measures banning the practice in San Benito and Mendocino counties. In the Los Angeles area, Beverly Hills has outlawed the practice, and residents of Culver City, Carson and Baldwin Hills are pushing for similar resolutions, as are citizen groups in Orange County's Brea.
It's a warm Sunday afternoon, and six members of the small, feisty outfit called Stop Fracking Long Beach (SFLB) are gathered at the quaint downtown Green House café for a biweekly brainstorming meeting. The six-week-old organization, which already counts nearly 300 members on its Facebook page, is committed to figuring out what's going on in–or rather, underneath–their town. They don't swallow the story the city government has been feeding them, that fracking is harmless and they need not worry.
“We know what we're up against,” insists Peggy O'Neil Rosales, a longtime Long Beach resident and brand-new member of SFLB. “Long Beach is the only city in the country with its own Gas & Oil Department. That tells you something right there. Sure, they say [fracking] is fine and safe, but there's absolutely no public oversight whatsoever. We know very little about what's really going on and how it's impacting our community.”
City officials are doing their best to keep it that way. Long Beach's new Mayor Robert Garcia, whom many consider to be a progressive, pro-environment Democrat, has long been an advocate for transitioning away from fossil fuels in order to combat climate change. But Garcia doesn't appear to be overly troubled by oil production's more immediate impacts here in the city. “The mayor supports Governor [Jerry] Brown's efforts to combat climate change, as well as the study of fracking's health, environmental and economic impacts,” says Daniel Brezenoff, Garcia's spokesperson. “Our operations are assessed regularly by multiple state and federal agencies.”
That's exactly the problem, argue environmental activists who have consistently targeted Brown for his warm embrace of oil and gas production in California. In February, groups protested during Brown's speech at the Oakland March for Real Climate Leadership. The demonstration occurred the same week a petition containing more than 184,000 signatures was delivered to the governor's Sacramento office, urging him to ban fracking throughout the state.
“Governor Brown has painted a bold vision to make California a global leader on climate change, but he has made zero mention of the extreme dangers of fracking or made any substantial attempt to address it,” Tim Molina of California-based Courage Campaign, one of the groups responsible for gathering signatures, complained in a statement. “We met with Governor Brown to urge him to follow the lead of New York Governor Cuomo and acknowledge the real threat that fracking poses to the health and safety of our communities–and implement a statewide ban on fracking.”
So why are environmental activists so worried? To begin with, they argue, fracking pollutes groundwater and excessively wastes precious supplies during a severe drought–some 70 million gallons were diverted for use in fracking last year in California alone. In fact, the California Environmental Protection Agency admitted in early February that state officials allowed more than 2,500 fracking wells to dump wastewater into protected underground aquifers, mostly in Kern County. Nonetheless, oil and gas development has been exempt from the mandatory water restrictions Brown announced in early April.
That isn't the type of failed leadership Mayor Garcia ought to be following, contends Alexandra Nagy, a community organizer for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit that's fighting fracking. And, Nagy believes, it's not just water pollution we should be worrying about. “If you live within 1,500 feet of an oil and gas well, you are considered a sensitive receptor, meaning you are being exposed to toxic chemicals and carcinogens coming from the oil and gas field and are at higher risk of illness and disease,” she says. “Of all the fracked wells in California, half are within 1,500 feet of a sensitive receptor. Los Angeles County is the second most productive county after Kern, and the Wilmington Oil Field, which lies through Long Beach, is the most productive field in LA County, third most in the country.”
Dozens of recent studies back up Nagy's claims. Last year, a peer-reviewed paper published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that people were more than twice as likely to have skin and respiratory ailments if they resided near natural gas wells as opposed to those who did not. The study was followed up with a 56-page report from Earthworks, a public interest group, which looked at FLIR (infrared) camera film from several oil and gas facilities in California. The organization's air samples at the sites found the “presence of 15 compounds known to have negative effects on human health, as well as 11 compounds for which no health data is available.” The report also noted that residents in these areas reported smelling odors likely related to nearby oil development and experienced higher than normal rates of skin rashes, sinus problems, headaches, nosebleeds and other ailments.
While Long Beach has made strides in cleaning its filthy air during the past two decades, the greater Long Beach area still ranks as one of the most polluted in the entire country, according to the American Lung Association and the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD). Local air-quality problems have long been associated with diesel rigs and large container ships traveling in and out of the bustling Port of Long Beach, but no doubt local oil and gas drilling has contributed to the problem. (When asked how the Long Beach Health Department manages risks associated with oil and gas production, the agency did not respond.)
Elliot Gonzales, a 27-year-old SFLB member and the co-founder of Green Long Beach, says he immersed himself in local environmental and social justice causes after arriving in the coastal city from his home state of Florida. “I was just totally disgusted by the air quality when I first got here,” he says. “So many people here just accept the pollution as the norm, but we don't have to. We need to make Long Beach a cleaner, better city for everyone.”
Gonzales' tenacity and commitment to the environment caught the attention of former Mayor Bob Foster's staff, and he was soon appointed to Long Beach's Sustainable City Commission, on which he's served ever since, having been reappointed by Garcia last year. “I was always bugging [the City Council], so I guess they just couldn't ignore me any longer,” Gonzales says with a chuckle.
While the Sustainable City Commission lacks regulatory muscle, the body can bring issues before the City Council and is set up to serve as a sounding board for the public. “Fracking is a political quagmire for the City Council,” Gonzales admits. “But that's not a reason to ignore the issue that so many of us are concerned about.”
In December, Gonzales asked for fracking to be placed on the commission's agenda; the initial response came the following January. It was terse, to say the least. “With the Sustainability Commission, [fracking] touches on other issues that make it highly sensitive,” said Larry Rich of the Office of Sustainability during the January meeting. “So that's why it's not on our agenda tonight . . . and unless we get some specific direction from [City Council] to take it up as an issue, we won't be seeing it on our agenda.”
Gonzales, who was absent during that meeting, wasn't pleased when he heard Rich's response. “All we really want is more accountability and an open forum to discuss the issues of fracking in a public setting,” he says. “I believe it's unfair to communities here in Long Beach to not even be open to discussing the potential impacts of fracking on air and water quality. How can [city government] ignore these types of public-health concerns?”
On March 26, SFLB members and others came out to voice their fears about fracking at the commission's monthly meeting and back up Gonzales' plea to make it an agenda item. Six local residents took the podium to address why they felt it was crucial to press the City Council and Garcia to make the subject worthy of public debate.
“I am here today to beseech you to bring the issue of fracking to the City Council,” resident Erin Foley said. “We know that fracking affects us, whether fracking is recognized as happening here or not, or recognized as a danger by the oil and gas industry. . . . This is a local, state and federal issue, and I feel that starting locally is very important. . . . We know there are pipelines going underneath Long Beach to San Pedro, and that fracking has been occurring on the THUMS islands off the shore of Long Beach for more than a decade, so that makes the people around here a stakeholder in this.”
Christopher J. Garner, who directs the city's Gas & Oil Department, downplayed the importance and risk of fracking in an interview with the Weekly. “The last time a [frack] job occurred in [Long Beach was] over a year ago,” he says. “I can assure you that the expert opinion [is] . . . that our operations are very well-regulated by several federal and state regulatory agencies. Extreme caution is made to eliminate or minimize any risks to the environment.”
Yet the Weekly has received exclusive data gathered by FracTracker, a leading resource on oil and gas operations, which indicates that hydraulic fracturing has occurred in Long Beach no less than 22 times since 2012. In a draft report commissioned by California Natural Resources Agency released in January, the authors estimated the “integrated data imply a rate of 16 hydraulic fracturing operations per year offshore in California waters, all in the offshore portion of the Wilmington field [in Long Beach].”
On March 24, when the California Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) held its “aquifer exemption workshop” at the Holiday Inn near the Long Beach Airport, the news was still fresh–via a Feb. 9 report in the Associated Press–that California officials had allowed the injecting of fracking waste into state aquifers no less than 2,500 times.
The meeting started out like so many other bureaucratic slumber fests, however. A headache-inducing PowerPoint presentation followed by more assertions that DOGGR was doing everything in its understaffed power to protect California's water resources, while continuing to allow “aquifer exemptions” to the very industry responsible for polluting groundwater in the state.
Demonstrators associated with Californians Against Fracking held up signs near the workshop's entrance, but inside the conference room, the mood was much more subdued. Attendees were nodding off as DOGGR officials outlined data requirements and procedures oil companies could follow so they could continue to inject frack water into underground wells. That's when things got interesting.
First, a well-dressed activist politely interrupted the presentation by asking, “What is this workshop all about? Is it to teach them how to continue to poison our water?”
Then another person spoke up and voiced a similar sentiment. Suddenly, the meeting had a little life to it. Alicia Rivers, who works with Communities for a Better Environment, took out two bottles of “frack water” and asked if DOGGR regulators would be interested in taking a swig. Next, the ad-hoc group rolled out a banner that read, “Gov. Brown, Stop Letting Big Oil Poison Our Water!”
“You are our regulators! You have violated your mission,” announced Hamid Assian of Food & Water Watch as he walked toward the front of the room. “We hereby serve you your pink slip! Thank you!”
In late 2013, the California State Assembly passed Senate Bill 4, its first attempt to employ regulations over the fracking. However, last-minute amendments were added to the bill after heavy lobbying by oil and gas companies, causing most environmental groups to withdraw their support. While the regulations, which won't go into full effect until January 2016, will require operators to list the types of chemicals they use in frack jobs, many well-stimulation projects will be exempt from environmental review, groundwater monitoring and the public notification process. The Los Angeles Times even editorialized the “Legislature should be embarrassed by its reckless attitude on this issue.”
Most of the well-stimulation that takes place in Long Beach will not be regulated by SB 4, even though certain impacts from oil and gas development could be just as great as those posed by hydraulic fracturing (also known as hydro-fracking), says Williams. For instance, Long Beach utilizes an extraction method known as gravel packing, a process that's not regulated under the bill.
SCAQMD notes that gravel packing is the second most common form of well-stimulation in the South Coast region. The technique uses a mixture of dangerous chemicals to stimulate rocks for oil, leaving nearby communities vulnerable to air toxins and vapors. Gravel packing, which applies many of the same chemicals as fracking, such as benzene and biocides (both known to kill living organisms and cause cancer), has been used offshore at least 90 times in Long Beach in the past three years.
However, the most common form of drilling in Long Beach is known as acidizing, some of which will be regulated under SB 4. Acidizing alone has occurred no less than 150 times in Long Beach since 2012. As with hydro-fracking, acidizing contains hydrogen fluoride (HF), a colorless gas that dissolves in water. Even though you can't see it, HF is not benign.
Scientists say it's one of the most hazardous chemicals in commercial use today. According to the Centers for Disease Control, exposure to HF can cause skin damage, chronic lung disease, permanent visual defects and even death. While acidizing and gravel packing are most popular in Long Beach, they have also been used in Huntington Beach–a combined 31 times since 2012.
Large portions of northern Orange and south Los Angeles counties sit atop a major aquifer that provides large amounts of cheap water to local communities, 60 percent of Long Beach's alone. The potential for fracking operations to damage these precious water supplies is just too risky, critics contend. That's why activists say Long Beach's City Council and Mayor Robert Garcia must be forced to address the issue.
“We won't stop until they do,” promises Rosales. “This issue is just too important. We aren't about to let it go away.”
Even so, Nagy predicts Long Beach officials, cognizant of the dependency of their coffers on oil and gas revenues, will be reluctant to offend the local powers that be. “The oil and gas industry is so deeply embedded in Long Beach government, budget and politics,” she says. “The status quo is not going to challenge themselves. For them, it's better to keep the public in the dark.”