Governor Brown’s climate shortcomings are bad for our health

The governor needs to shut down the toxic oil and gas wells -- or stop claiming he's an environmental champion

California often gets credit for being an environmental leader, but such plaudits overlook the many neighborhoods in California that live a nightmarish reality due to the toxic effects of the oil and gas industry. In Los Angeles, our health suffers daily from poisonous air emissions released by oil wells and the dangerously leaky Aliso Canyon gas facility.

Governor Brown is hosting a climate summit in San Francisco, where he will warn us about climate change and boast about his leadership. But our experiences raise serious questions about whether this governor has the fortitude to take on the fossil fuel industry.

Oil wells in LA are causing health problems

In South Central Los Angeles, families are surrounded by oil wells that emit noxious fumes that make our children sick. The emissions from one well, operated by AllenCo, were so severe that when federal inspectors visited the site they all got sick just minutes after exposure. AllenCo is surrounded by nine schools, including one for disabled children, and an affordable housing community.

When one of our daughters was just a child, she suffered from nosebleeds, headaches and nausea from AllenCo’s fumes. While operations at the site have been temporarily halted, thanks to community efforts that won the help of former Senator Barbara Boxer, AllenCo is now pushing to resume drilling. There are several other wells nearby that are just a handful of the 5,000 active oil wells within the Los Angeles County.

Twenty miles northwest of the AllenCo well lies the Aliso Canyon gas field, perched above the San Fernando Valley. Three years after the facility had the biggest gas blowout in the nation’s history, leaks continue to send toxic gas downhill to the neighborhoods of Porter Ranch, Granada Hills and Northridge. Recently released testimony from a SoCalGas engineer shows that this gas contains dangerously high levels of benzene—a known carcinogen. 

One of our daughter’s nosebleeds and respiratory problems that began after the blowout continue to this day. Our neighbors and their pets also suffer from ongoing severe breathing problems, rashes and nose bleeds—just like families living by oil wells across town.

Our pleas to the governor for relief have been dismissed and deferred. Brown refuses to exercise his power to shut down Aliso Canyon and neighborhood oil drilling operations, even though they aren’t needed to supply energy, and tells us that they will go away – someday. Just not under his watch.

We wonder whether Brown’s inaction is due to contributions from the industry. Brown has taken millions in campaign contributions from the oil and gas industries, and his sister has earned $1 million in stock and cash to serve on the board of Sempra, the company that owns Aliso Canyon.

So perhaps it isn’t surprising that Brown has let these interests continue business as usual despite his dire warnings on climate change.

Statewide, Brown has refused to ban fracking or take any action to limit oil drilling in California, leaving communities and local governments to fend for themselves and fight an industry with endless financial reserves. His office is quick to say that campaign contributions don’t affect his decisions, but Brown once said the opposite himself.

“You bet I was influenced,” Brown told a caller to his We The Peopleradio show over 20 years ago. “You think you can collect $10 million or $20 million and not let it affect your judgment? Your behavior is influenced, and that is the vice that is destroying us. People who work in the fish factory don’t realize they stink.”

We who suffer the consequences of Brown’s fossil-friendly policies, certainly smell the stench of political cowardice. Governor Brown has the authority to put an end to these dangerous and polluting practices, but he refuses to act. That’s why more than 750 organizations have formed the Brown’s Last Chance campaign, which includes supporters such as Food & Water Watch and Consumer Watchdog, to shine the light on Brown’s record of negligence.

We will be in San Francisco to bring our message to the Governor directly at his climate summit this week. And if he fails to act, we will keep working to push the next governor to be the real climate leader that California desperately needs.

Monic Uriarte and Helen Attai live in Los Angeles.