Community Group Sues LAFD to Enforce Fire Code At Drill Site

A grassroots community organization has filed suit against the Los Angeles City Fire Department seeking a court order mandating the fire chief to take action against the operators of non-operating oil and gas extraction wells at a site in South Los Angeles. The suit was filed by the Redeemer Community Partnership in Los Angeles County Superior Court seeking a writ of mandamus and injunctive relief against the LAFD.

According to the complaint, the fire chief has the obligation under the fire code to regulate oversee oil and gas drilling sites in the city. In addition, the fire chief is reportedly obligated to issue a notice to either abandon or reactivate all non-operating oil and gas wells, with non-operating wells being those that have ceased operations for longer than one-year.

Redeemer alleges that a cite in South Los Angeles, referred to as the Murphy Drill Site, contains thirty-three non-operating wells that the fire department has failed to take action on. Quoting from the complaint:

  • Non-operating wells present significant risks to community health and safety.
  • Such wells act as pathways for toxic gases and dangerous contaminants to migrate to the surface and into the atmosphere.
  • Non-operating wells are known to emit pollutants including benzene and formaldehyde, fine and ultra-fine particulate matter, and hydrogen sulfide.
  • All these pollutants have proven records of toxicity and are known to cause health impacts ranging from nosebleeds to chronic headaches, increased risks of asthma and other respiratory illnesses, and increased risk of cancer.
  • Non-operating wells also contribute to climate change. Leaking wells emit methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the global warming potential of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.
  • In addition to large-scale climate impacts, methane poses a direct and immediate hazard to workers and nearby residents due to the threat of fires and explosions.
  • Further, leaks and spills from non-operating wells can contaminate soil, groundwater, and surface water with a variety of pollutants, including brine, heavy metals, and radioactive substances.
  • The Murphy Drill Site is located at 2126 West Adams Boulevard in South Los Angeles.
  • The site was originally where the railroad, cement, and oil tycoon Daniel Murphy built his Italian Renaissance-style estate.
  • Daniel Murphy was a significant benefactor of the Los Angeles Roman Catholic Archdiocese and his daughter, Bernardine Murphy Donohue, ultimately gifted the site to the Archdiocese.
  • Even though the site was zoned for multi-family residential housing, the Archdiocese leased the land to Union Oil Company of California in 1958 to develop the Murphy Drill Site.
  • When drilling began at the Murphy Drill Site in 1961, the Los Angeles Zoning Administrator noted in the Plan Approval that the site was already “in the heart of a densely populated residential neighborhood.”
  •  The site was “adjoining a Catholic Sister’s Convent,” “across the street from quality residential improvements and the Clark Memorial Library,” and near “public and private school sites.”
  • Today, the Murphy Drill Site remains situated in a dense residential neighborhood.
  • According to the 2014–2018 American Community Survey from the U.S. Census Bureau, 13,467 people live within a half-mile radius of the site.
  • Many of the area’s residents are especially vulnerable to the risks associated with oil and gas extraction.
  • In particular, the Murphy Drill Site shares a common wall with an apartment complex for low-income residents on one side and the AIDS Healthcare Foundation’s Healthcare Center on the other.
  • It is surrounded by homes, schools, playgrounds, and health centers including the Widney Career Preparatory and Transition Center (a high school for students with special needs), 24th Street Elementary School, Carl Bean Men’s Wellness Center, John Tracy Center (a provider for infants and young children with hearing loss), Western Convalescent Hospital, and several housing complexes for hundreds of seniors including Independent Square and Saint John of God Retirement and Care Center.

The suit seeks a court order mandating the fire chief to comply with the fire code relative to issuing the notice to abandon or reactivate the non-operating wells at the Murphy Drill Site.

Here is a copy of the complaint:

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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