The community tried to get a dozen idle oil and gas wells capped, but instead the oil company brought them back to life

For years, Carson-Gore Academy of Environmental Studies (a Los Angeles Unified School District school named for the author of Silent Spring and the former vice president) sat across from about a dozen idle oil and gas wells that they thought were never coming back into use. Worried about the effects of idle wells just sitting there, deteriorating, residents tried to get the wells plugged. It backfired, says the LA Times, and now the wells are pumping petroleum again.

Arlington Heights locals had tried to get the company that owned the site to plug the wells because they were sure they were never going to be turned on again. Oil production on the site stopped around five years ago (about the same time the school opened), though it took a few more years for natural gas to stop moving through the site.

Perhaps most convincing for residents was that “When the Los Angeles Unified School District planned the new academy, the company then operating the site…said the proximity to a school would trigger a long list of air quality regulations that could make it difficult for them to operate viably.”

Though state rules are murky on when an idle well should be plugged, LA apparently has its own, much clearer rules about it. Wells idle for a year or more must be either plugged or restarted within a month after the fire chief invokes the city code rule. Armed with this knowledge, residents decided to ask the LA Fire Department to get involved. Freeport-McMoRan, the owners of the site, responded by starting them back up.

(If the name sounds familiar, it might be because Freeport-McMoRan is the same company whose nearby wells in Adams-Normandie sprayed “a fine mist” of oil on a house and cars near their drilling site in 2011. In 2014, they were really hopping they’d be able to expand on those neighborhood oil drilling operations without an environmental review.)

Freeport-McMoRan says that the wells passed the necessary checks from fire and state oil officials, though it seems like there are still some permitting issues. Some of the old injection wells (whose permits have expired) are being used as gas rather than oil wells—a crossover that requires new permits that the company hasn’t yet acquired. Freeport-McMoRan says that the wells were restarted to show they were in working order, but have since been “idled.”

A rep for the LAFD says that the department won’t say whether Freeport-McMoRan “had satisfied the city demands to plug or reactivate the idle wells” yet, because it’s waiting to hear from the regulators at the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources.

But whether restarted or idle, these wells could pose a threat to the community—idle wells have been found to be monitored less than active ones. There are more than 1,100 idle wells in LA. (There are about 3,000 oil wells in LA.) And oil and gas extraction has been found to disproportionately affect LA’s poor and non-white neighborhoods.

Letting the wells sit idle might also be a stalling tactic, say some locals, who worry that Freeport might be holding off on plugging the wells because it’s expensive. The process costs between $150,000 and $500,000 for each well, and “Freeport-McMoRan has been battered by plunging prices for oil and faces daunting debt,” says the Times. Residents of the area worry that if the company won’t pay for it, taxpayers might eventually get left holding the bill for the pricey plugging procedure.

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