State regulators said they had been trying to arrange a site inspection of a problem-plagued oil drilling site in South Los Angeles for months, to no avail.
On Monday, they dropped the niceties and arrived at the Allenco Energy facility armed with an inspection warrant, a locksmith and bolt-cutters.
The facility has had a troubled history since Allenco first leased it in 2009 from the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
Neighbors complained for several years that the site emitted noxious fumes that gave them nosebleeds, headaches and respiratory problems like asthma.
When federal inspectors from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency became ill during a site visit in November 2013, Allenco voluntarily shut down the facility.
Monday’s inspection stems from a September 2019 report, when the state Department of Conservation’s Geologic Energy Management Division, CalGEM, said it discovered a wellhead gas leak. Six months later, regulators ordered Allenco to permanently plug the site’s 21 wells, saying it had “deserted” the facility and was not properly maintaining the wells. But Allenco said it had not produced any oil on the site for a decade and would not be spending any “further capital” there. In August 2020, the Los Angeles city attorney’s office charged them with a criminal misdemeanor for not complying with the court order.
According to CalGEM, earlier this year, Allenco canceled a site inspection one day before it was scheduled, prompting the agency to take a more aggressive approach.
California Highway Patrol officers accompanied the regulators as they executed the warrant on Monday.
“This is very uncommon. We generally do not have this type of situation,” said Uduak-Joe Ntuk, head of CalGEM. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but we are fully prepared to keep the site in a safe condition with the legal route so we can protect the public and the environment with any concerns.”
Allenco’s attorney, former Los Angeles City Atty. Carmen Trutanich, referred The Times to its recent court filings in the matter. Attorney Bill Carter, who represents Allenco executive Timothy James Parker in the criminal trial, said that the city and the Los Angeles Archdiocese are the owners of the property.
“We are a peanut compared to the city of Los Angeles and the Archdiocese,” Carter said. “Allenco has no interest in staying on that site and resuming operation. It’s not as black and white as the city wants it to be.”
L.A. city attorney’s office spokesperson Rob Wilcox called Allenco’s argument “meritless,” saying, “The city has opposed it.”
Ntuk said that under the state’s zoning code, the surface owners are not responsible for a bankrupt or orphaned oil facility. That responsibility goes to the mineral rights holders, which likely number in the thousands and may have some potential liability, including previous site operators. That would be determined by a court at a future date, Ntuk said.
“But as of right now, the archdiocese and city don’t have responsibility for the site,” Ntuk said. “It’s Allenco Energy.”
In a statement, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said it supports the plans by CalGEM and the city to repurpose the property once the wells are plugged and abandoned and the site is properly decommissioned. It also said Allenco is the entity responsible for giving state inspectors access to the drill site.
“As it has indicated for several years, the Archdiocese continues to be committed to collaborating in a comprehensive plan to plug the wells, decommission the facility at the site, and develop a just resolution that ensures that the health and well-being of the surrounding communities are protected and prioritized,” the Archdiocese said in a statement.
In a civil suit filed by Allenco against CalGEM and the Archdiocese of L.A., the company claimed it no longer had the resources “to maintain the facility” for the city and the Archdiocese. It claims that because its lease agreement was terminated in 2014, it should not be considered the operator of the site.
The facility sits in the University Park neighborhood, about a mile away from USC, flanked by apartment buildings, schools and Mount St. Mary’s University.
Hugo Garcia, environmental justice campaign coordinator with Esperanza Community Housing, has been part of a grassroots movement to safely close the site. To him, Monday’s site inspection was a stark reminder of Allenco’s unwillingness to work with the community and regulators.
“It graphically illustrates Allenco’s continued lack of cooperation with the agencies that regulate oil and gas companies and their lack of cooperation with the community for public safety,” Garcia said outside the gated facility.
One of the main concerns for residents is making sure sure the neighborhood oil wells, which are now idle, are properly maintained and depressurized to prevent any type of leaks into the community.
“Too much pressure in the wells, they could create some kind of event, like a fire or an explosion that would affect this community,” Garcia said.
Ntuk said Monday’s site inspection served a dual purpose to allow contractors to preview the site and prepare bids so they can safely depressurize the wells. That will involve contractors pouring mud into the wells to temporarily plug them and prevent any future leaks. That process could begin within the next several weeks.
Resident Marco Sanchez walked down the street from his home to the Allenco facility entrance on Monday. With an umbrella over his shoulder, he watched as the inspectors dipped into the stairwell leading to the underground wellheads.
“It’s very important that we have a healthy area and good air to breathe for our kids,” Sanchez said. “I think the operator will do whatever he can do to make money regardless of what consequences.”
Times staff writers Louis Sahagún and Emily Alpert Reyes contributed to this report.