Oil Drilling Lawsuit: Wilmington Youth vs. City of Los Angeles

Wilmington is home to more than half of the active oil wells in Los Angeles. While drilling takes place all over the city, Wilmington seems to have the least amount of protections. The toxic chemicals emitted from oil drilling in our community are a serious health concern and the basis of a lawsuit filed by environmental justice advocates on behalf of Wilmington youth. The lawsuit claims that the city discriminates against communities in Wilmington and South L.A. by allowing oil drilling with less regulations compared to oil drilling sites in more affluent parts of L.A.

Why are residential homes and drilling sites in Wilmington in such close proximity? How did this situation come to be?

The city of L.A. has a duty to protect the health and safety of its residents. This includes regulating oil extraction in the midst of a densely populated environment. But compared to the much more stringent rules in place in white, affluent neighborhoods, the regulations in economically disadvantaged communities of color like Wilmington fall far short.

History of the Wilmington Oil Field aka How it All Started


Photo of a Wilmington oil rig in 1941 behind East G Street. Source waterandpower.org

The Wilmington Oil Field, the third largest oil field in the U.S, was discovered in 1932. During that time, L.A. was the the Saudi Arabia of oil production and the oil industry was the center of L.A.’s economy. The film industry, for example, was financed by the oil economy.

Over the years, as oil production slowed and property values rose, the buffer areas around oil wells were often sold to housing developers. These buffer areas were meant to provide a safety zone between drilling and residential buildings, but once it became profitable to build homes there, the buffers disappeared.

Resurgence of Oil Production

As oil prices have risen rapidly over the last decade, there has been a resurgence of oil production. Old wells were uncapped and new ones drilled. The problem is that today these areas are far more populated and the new techniques used to drill are far more dangerous than they were a few generations ago.

The California Air and Resources Board recommends a 1,000 ft. distance between oil drilling and residences. However, in Wilmington the average distance between oil drilling and homes and schools is 139 ft.

Health Impacts

Modern drilling techniques emit toxic chemicals that enter our air, water, and soil. These chemicals are linked to serious health conditions such as asthma, heart disease, and birth complications. Children are more vulnerable to environmental risks and are more likely to develop chronic diseases, including cancer. People living near oil wells have reported symptoms of dizziness, eye irritation, nosebleeds, headaches, and exacerbated asthma. They also complain of bad odors, stressful noise, and ground vibrations.

In Wilmington these effects are amplified because of the multiple polluting industries in the area, including refineries, the port, rail yards and heavy diesel truck traffic. Oil drilling adds to the already heavy pollution in our community. Parts of Wilmington are in the top 5% of communities with the highest pollution exposure and social vulnerability in the state. The cancer risk in Wilmington is among the highest in Southern California.


The Los Angeles Planning Department has the power to approve or reject an application for a new drilling well. They have approved new drilling operations in Wilmington but have not taken into consideration the current reality our community faces when making their decisions. Without consideration of the current environmental conditions, the cumulative health impacts are ignored.

This issue is central to the current lawsuit. The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires a city to conduct a case-by-case environmental review of the environmental, health, and safety impacts of these types of operations. The lawsuit alleges that the city is in violation of CEQA for approving expanded oil drilling operations without conducting an environmental review process, which would require public hearings and community input.

In 2006, at a Wilmington oil site operated by Warren E&P, the company submitted a proposal to the L.A. planning department to increase their oil wells from 9 to 540 wells. The city approved the plan without conducting an environmental review. From the point of view of the department, a 60-fold increase in the number of wells operated by a single company did not merit even a basic review process.

Wilmington Youth vs. City of Los Angeles

The current lawsuit claims that there is a racial bias in how the city regulates and approves oil drilling operations. The city allows for weaker regulations in Wilmington compared to drilling sites in white, more affluent neighborhoods.


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In the west side of L.A., oil rigs are often fully enclosed in sound-proof buildings that are required to look like office buildings and be landscaped so they fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. In Wilmington, we are lucky if there is even a chain-link fence around a drilling site. In the westside the drilling rigs are often electric, which pollutes far less and emits less noise than the diesel rigs found in our neighborhoods. At one site in West L.A., the oil company was even required to provide double-paned windows for all the neighbors.

This is a common pattern, but brings up the question: Why aren’t we afforded the same protections as other parts of L.A.? Communities of color are often seen as dumping grounds, while affluent neighborhoods are given more protections. Look at the differences between our neighbor San Pedro and us. We have many of the same environmental issues, but because they have more political influence, they get far more resources than we do here in Wilmington.

We aren’t asking the city to shut down the oil drilling sites (not yet anyway). All we are asking is that the city give us the same level of protections. The city is in violation of the 14th Amendment of the Constitution, which guarantees that all people are entitled to “equal protection under the law.” When the city applies the laws differently in some neighborhoods than others, they are violating our civil rights.

Want to do something about it? Take Action

Since the city has not given us a chance for public hearings, let’s make them hear us.

Let’s let our regulators know what we think.

Call City Councilmember Joe Buscaino’s office at (213)-473-7015.

You can also report an issue to Buscaino’s office online.


Liberty Hill Report

Lawsuit Filling

Community Health Councils – Oil Drilling in Los Angeles Issue Brief

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