Oil Spill Threatens Los Angeles Neighborhoods and River Revitalization Efforts

Early this morning, an oil pipeline burst in northeast Los Angeles, spewing more than 10,000 gallons of crude 20 feet into the air and blanketing a half-mile area with oil. Thankfully, only a handful of minor injuries were reported, but fire department officials said the oil was “knee-high” in some areas, and that some nearby businesses were affected.

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#US latest: Broken pipeline provokes "knee-dip" oil spill near LA. Photo via @XrayJ76 http://t.co/JOTqa3ynjy pic.twitter.com/lQR0swYPXm

— José Miguel Sardo (@jmsardo) May 15, 2014

Although this spill appears to have happened in a largely industrial area, hundreds of homes in the community of Glendale can be found less than a thousand feet to the east, and the Glendale Narrows section of the Los Angeles River lies a couple thousand feet to the west. The potential health impacts to residents from exposure to crude oil are serious. After the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, my colleague Dr. Gina Solomon blogged about residents in onshore areas closest to the spill experiencing headaches, dizziness, nausea, eye irritation, and respiratory problems. And later that year, as OnEarth Magazine’s early coverage showed in harrowing detail, the massive Kalamazoo River pipeline disaster struck, exposing numerous communities in Michigan to similar symptoms as a million-plus gallons of heavy Canadian tar sands oil erupted into the waterway. In some ways, it's an apt comparison: the pipeline that spilled here today is owned by Plains All American and likely carried heavy California crude from Bakersfield. While that stuff is not quite as nasty as the tar sands spilled in Michigan, they are very similar in nature.

Oil-related impacts to the LA River would be devastating as well. The spectacular seven-mile Glendale Narrows stretch of the river has a soft bottom and lush vegetation, providing habitat for wildlife including shorebirds such as herons, egrets, and kingfishers, as well as riverside paths for walkers, joggers, bicyclists, birdwatchers, and nature lovers from all over Los Angeles. Exposure to toxins from crude oil can take a lethal toll on river life, as well as cause genetic damage, liver disease, cancer and harm to animals’ reproductive and immune systems.

Reports so far don’t seem to indicate that this oil spill has impacted residents or reached the LA River, but the incident should serve as a wake-up call to elected officials and public health professionals, as well as the long list of river and park advocates, agencies at the local, state, and federal levels, and community and environmental groups, including NRDC, that have long been working to restore and revitalize the river. Today’s spill shows that oil production and transportation infrastructure in and near residential areas and the LA River, including pipelines, truck routes, and freight rail lines for crude-by-rail, are a threat to public health as well as ongoing river revitalization efforts.

The oil industry is bringing the risk of oil transportation ever closer to our back yards via more pipelines, more oil trains, and more proposals for depots in California and around the country. As my colleague Anthony Swift points out, this spill is part of a broader national pipeline safety problem. What's more, crude-by-rail shipments have grown forty fold over the last five years, as my colleague Diane Bailey explained last month, and the last year alone has seen more spills and accidents than the previous thirty combined.

Communities clearly need added protections and safeguards. We need our elected officials to take a close look at what added safeguards need to be in place to prevent a spill that could have serious public health impacts for communities and severe environmental consequences for the Los Angeles River. LA Mayor Eric Garcetti would be a natural fit to lead this effort, given his interest in creating healthier neighborhoods and enthusiastic support for LA River revitalization. NRDC would be glad to assist with such an effort.