As a resident of Wilmington, CA, I’ve lived near hundreds of active oil wells, five major oil refineries, a major port complex, and a tangle of freeways almost my whole life. Wilmington is my home—but it is also home to one of the largest urban oil fields in the country. Growing up next to major polluters has driven me to fight for my right and my community’s right to breathe clean air.
I regularly experienced nosebleeds, headaches, and nausea while family members and friends suffered asthma, even cancer. Only years later did I come to understand these symptoms’ association with oil wells. Today, a growing body of scientific evidence shows that living near oil drilling is associated with lung and heart disease, asthma, pre-term birth defects, and cancer.
Urban oil drilling disproportionately takes place near homes, schools, hospitals, and parks in Black and Brown communities. Decades of redlining, environmental racism, the greed of oil companies, and the indifference of elected officials are all of a piece.
Communities like mine have been among the hardest hit by President Trump: bald-faced racism, an all-out attack on environmental regulation, and the criminal negligence of his COVID-19 response, with Black and Brown communities being hit the hardest. It was shocking but not surprising when a recent study showed people living in communities with high levels of air pollution are more likely to die from COVID-19.
While Trump’s departure can’t come soon enough, we need elected officials now to move beyond “leading the resistance to Trump.” We need bold leadership to uproot the systemic racism and dependence on fossil fuels that shape our lives in Wilmington and beyond. We need a just transition to a clean, renewable energy economy, where fossil fuel workers move to family-sustaining jobs with equal pay in other industries, and polluted communities get cleaned up and made whole. This transition must begin with a concrete plan to end oil extraction in our neighborhoods.
I’m proud to belong to a coalition of youth activists, physicians, public health experts, neighborhood and environmental groups who have such a plan: establish a 2,500-ft health and safety buffer between active oil wells and sensitive land uses—our homes, schools, healthcare and childcare facilities– and begin the process of phasing out wells within this buffer zone.
We’ve marched and organized, packed City Council meetings, and told our stories for four long years. Most elected officials have smiled and nodded but done next to nothing — all while conditions around them have shifted. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest racism. Wildfires supercharged by climate change have reinforced how quickly we must transition off of fossil fuels. And neighboring jurisdictions have blazed the trail around oil extraction: Culver City plans to phase out all of its oil wells while Ventura County has enacted science-based setbacks of 2,500 feet around schools.
This week, the City Council has a chance to change all that, as they discuss a confidential report from the City Attorney on one basic question: Can the City create a law that bans oil drilling near homes, schools, and other sensitive land uses? That oil companies and industry trade groups will sue over this is a given. They had the audacity to sue young people of color in our community, trying to silence us after we challenged their environmental racism. We stood up to them and won and the City must do the same. Moreover, the City’s power to decide what kinds of businesses can operate near other land uses is well-established — especially when the public’s health and well-being are at stake.
Will the City have to pay out oil companies when it forces them to stop pumping? We are the last ones who want to see polluters bailed out by taxpayers. That’s why we invested in research and in educating city officials on a legal approach that avoids financial liability for the City.
This week, the City Council can and should take a clear step toward creating a 2500-foot buffer and phasing out oil extraction in our neighborhoods. Standing up for science, protecting public health, and challenging racism — it’s the perfect anti-Trump trifecta. More importantly, it’s an opportunity to show what bold leadership in the soon-to-be post-Trump era looks like.
Ashley Hernandez is a resident and youth organizer in Wilmington, CA with Communities for a Better Environment (CBE).