Tom Stoy, a worker at the E&B oil site in Huntington Beach, walks down a line of pumps in a below-ground room. The site is tucked away behind cinder block walls and trees in two one-square-city-block lots in a residential area. A proposed oil-drilling site in Hermosa Beach would be similar, officials say. Photo by Sam Gangwer, staff photographer.
An oil drilling site in Huntington Beach could offer some perspective to residents of Hermosa Beach, where voters soon will decide whether to allow oil drilling in their city.
Houses surround every side of the Angus Petroleum oil drilling site in Huntington Beach, some as close as 50 feet. Meanwhile, about 30 miles up the coast, houses, parks and local businesses surround a Hermosa Beach lot that could become another oil drilling site in a residential area.
The Hermosa Beach city yard on Sixth Street and Valley Drive is the center of a highly contentious issue: to drill or not to drill. Supporters of the project say that the city needs the revenue oil drilling could bring in.
Those opposed cite health concerns or the risk of a potential oil spill in a town that is only 1.4 square miles. The backstory on how oil became the town’s hot-button issue is nearly as long as the arguments for and against it.
The city and E&B Natural Resources signed an agreement last year that would allow E&B to call for an election as soon as November to lift Hermosa’s ban on oil drilling. If successful, the ballot measure would allow E&B to install 30 oil wells at the city’s 1.3-acre maintenance yard.
The agreement calls for the city to repay E&B $17.5 million if the ballot measure fails. E&B loaned the money to the city to help settle a lawsuit with Macpherson Oil. At the time, the city was facing up to $500 million in damages for having restored the ban on oil drilling in 1995 after entering into a lease agreement with Macpherson to allow oil drilling from the city maintenance yard in 1992.
If the project is approved, the city could receive $118 million to $270 million over the 35 years of the project’s life, and Hermosa Beach schools would receive $1.2 million to $2.2 million, according to the cost benefit analysis prepared for the city by Kosmont Cos.
The Angus Petroleum site in Huntington Beach, which was bought by E&B in 2012, offers enough similarities to present what might be in store for Hermosa Beach.
Both projects had rocky beginnings within their respective communities. In Hermosa Beach, opponents have formed Stop Hermosa Beach Oil. Houses and businesses throughout the city sport the group’s white and green banners, which use a little wordplay with the town’s name, which means “beautiful” in Spanish – “Keep Hermosa Hermosa.”
The group Concerned Citizens of Huntington Beach rallied against oil drilling at the Huntington Beach site, which was finished in 1991.
Since then, vocal opposition to the oil drilling site seems to have died down, according to the Huntington Beach Fire Department and E&B.
However, after oil production resumed in Huntington Beach in 2009, some complaints arose from residents, particularly about smells coming from the site, said Huntington Beach Fire Marshall Bill Reardon.
In 2013, the site received seven complaints from residents, down from 106 in 2010, said Michael Finch, vice president of health, safety and environmental affairs for E&B.
Dakota Le has lived across the street from the Angus Petroleum site with her family for the past 17 years.
“It doesn’t really bother me, but sometimes it smells kind of funny,” Le said.
The Huntngton Beach site consists of two separate 1.3-acre lots with with 28 oil wells and an 8-foot wall surrounding each lot. The Hermosa Beach site would consist of one 1.3-acre lot with 30 oil wells and a 35-foot wall.
Both sites would use directional drilling, which would allow all of the oil in Hermosa Beach to be drilled from one central location, said Rock Zierman, chief exectuve of the California Independent Petroleum Association.
It’s standard to use directional drilling in urban areas with less space and that vertical wells, which are more visible, are more common in rural areas, said Zierman, who added that the Hermosa Beach site would have the advantage of improved accuracy, as technology for directional drilling has progressed over the years.
“The technology is such now that with GPS, satellite and computers, you’re able to pinpoint exactly where the drill bit is going,” he said.
While Finch said that E&B would be taking additional precautions at the Hermosa Beach site, including installing a redundant safety system and hiring a third-party engineer to advise and sign off on operations, many residents are still skeptical .
Two banners hanging over Michael Collins’ home, which protest the project, can be seen across the street from the city yard, the proposed location for the oil drilling project in Hermosa Beach. Photo by Isaac Arjonilla, staff photographer.
Barbara Ellman, who lives on Loma Drive near the city yard, said she’s concerned about safety.
“There’s no room for mistakes here,” Ellman said. “No one wakes up in the morning and says ‘I’m not going to turn that valve on’ or ‘I’m going to back my car into something.’ It just happens. It’s not worth the health and the lives of all these people, people who work next door and people who have paid their life savings to live down here.”
The Health Impact Assessment that the city commissioned McDaniel Lambert Inc. to complete cited increased likelihood of headaches, cardiovascular diseases, asthma, cancer and depression as potential side effects of oil drilling.
The report has since been withdrawn by McDaniel Lambert and the city because several sections needed revision after public comments were taken in February and March. The revised HIA will be available sometime in early July.
From the rooftop patio of Michael Collins’ home on Eighth Street, you can see the city yard. Collins, one of the founding members of Stop Hermosa Beach Oil, said that those who want to maintain the ban on oil drilling also want to prevent oil drilling from spreading along the coast.
“If we fall, if we lift our ban so they can drill, it’s going to happen up and down the coast,” Collins said. “We’re the first domino. There’s a battle for Hermosa Beach’s health and safety, but I think we’re also defending the Santa Monica Bay.”
Still, the residents who are in favor of the project say that the benefits – such as having the money to replace the city’s sewers – outweigh the risks.
“There are so many things that the city needs done, but no one ever looks at how to get it paid,” Hermosa Beach resident Jim Sullivan said.
In his 2014 State of the City address last month, Mayor Michael DiVirgilio said that getting the oil project on the November ballot was the city’s top priority.
“The city has created a huge conversation around oil,” DiVirgilio said. The November deadline “is also out of a commitment to resolve the discussion and dispute. It’s a very consuming topic in terms of passion and resources.”