Citizens concerned by potential return of oil drilling to Whittier

Citizens concerned by potential return of oil drilling to Whittier

Madison White

Editor in Chief

Originally published in Sustainable City

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“Tomorrow’s Whittier children will be living with the polluted consequences of these short-term decisions made today,” said Whittier resident Joanne Traverse at last week’s Whittier City Council meeting. “Not to mention all of us now, living with the pollution and danger presented by the digging and transporting of equipment.” Traverse was speaking against a renewed attempt to drill for oil in the Whittier Hills.

Earlier last week, California Governor Jerry Brown signed SB 100 into law, which pushes California to adopt 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. In stark contrast, during a Whittier City Council meeting on Sept. 11, council members discussed the Whittier oil drilling case in a closed session. 

Last Tuesday night, almost 20 concerned citizens spoke up at Public Voice to urge the Council not to reinstate drilling in the hills.

The battle over oil drilling in the hills is over a decade old, and many thought it was put to rest. That is, until this summer, when Matrix Oil Corp. and Clayton Williams Energy Inc. won their appeal in the 2nd District Appellate Court of Los Angeles.

In 1995, the City of Whittier acquired a 1,280-acre oil field with a gift of Los Angeles County Proposition A money, intended for wildlife preservation “in perpetuity.” Then, in 2008, the City entered into a contract with Matrix Oil which allowed Matrix to drill oil and gas on seven acres of the purchased property. 

While the proposed project accounted for less than one percent of the total land, residents of Whittier and the surrounding area expressed deep concern for the environmental impact of oil drilling so close to residential communities.

Health risks associated with oil drilling include nosebleeds, blurred vision, asthma, lung and throat infections, and even cancer. Environmental risks include contaminating the water table, which provides half of Whittier’s drinking water, air pollution, and earthquake risks associated with deep drilling.

“Our state is on a path committed to 100 percent clean energy,” said long-time Whittier resident Alicia Moisa-Duran. “I find your need to drill archaic and evil. Don’t let the old ways of thinking keep you down: voters can make a difference.”

“As a regular runner and hiker, our hills rival those in Griffith Park. I would hate to see them marred by oil drilling,” said Lisa Arellanes. “The fact that I can walk, run, and hike here means that I have my coffee here. It means I have breakfast here, and do my shopping here. I spend my money here.”

In 2008, the City Council voted unanimously to allow the project to continue despite considerable opposition (Whittier resident and advocate for the Open Space Legal Defense Fund Orlando Terrazas said that the Whittier Hills Oil Watch (WHOW) petition gained over 7,000 signatures against the drilling in 2012) and resistance from the County Supervisors who oversee the dispersal of Prop A money.

“I was part of WHOW [in 2008]. We were really able to reach out to the community and that’s where we collected the signatures for the petition, and distributed the signs,” said Terrazas. “It’s frustrating — all the hard work we put in and it’s still not done. We need to move forward.”

In 2013, a judge ruled that the City could not drill against the wishes of the County, which paid for the land and found that the project would need approval of the LA County Board of Supervisors. The Supervisors unanimously voted against the project, and the City expressed its disappointment in the ruling.

City Council members were briefed on the appeal during a closed session last Tuesday, and members of the community who fought the drilling back in 2008 spoke up at last week’s Council meeting to remind residents of the environmental and health related risks associated with oil.

“We need to think of the livelihood of those who would be working in these facilities,” said Whittier resident and founder of Cleaner Greener Whittier, “They deserve to have a source of income that does not jeopardize their health and wellbeing.” Salcido attended a conference hosted by former Vice President Al Gore discussing climate change and green energy.

While the legal decision feels sudden and unexpected to many, it is arguable that Matrix continued its lobbying efforts outside of the courtroom over the years. As Sustainable City reported in March, J.C. ‘Mac’ McFarland, consultant for Matrix Oil, funded an attack ad against former City Council Candidate Irella Perez under the PAC name Taxpayers for Quality Leadership.

The initial contract between Matrix Oil and the City expired, but negotiations are expected to take place soon. 

However, any money generated would have to go to parks and recreational facilities in the County, acting assistant county council Scott Kuhn said in an interview with Whittier Daily News. Kuhn also said he believes the City would still need the County’s permission to open a lease with Matrix.

City Councilmember Fernando Dutra responded to Sustainable City’s request for a comment, saying: “I appreciate everyone’s concern regarding the oil issue as it is a very important issue for our city. 

There is no pending project and the council has not met to specifically deliberate the oil issue. The city will provide an official response with fact sheets related to current concerns and comments that have been made.”

The future of oil drilling in Whittier is unclear, but community members are organizing once again to block a new lease. There will be a community meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 19, 7 p.m., at Sage restaurant in Uptown Whittier to discuss advocacy efforts.

The Quaker Campus will continue to report developments to this story as they occur.