A jogger runs in front of the Phillips 66 refinery in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles.
A jogger runs in front of the Phillips 66 refinery in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles. Mark J. Terrill/AP

For generations, oil refineries brought jobs—and pollution—to the residents of Wilmington. Can a new generation of youthful activists make it a healthier place to grow up?

Among the homes, schools, daycare centers, and churches of Los Angeles’s Wilmington neighborhood, hundreds of pumpjacks extract oil, their dinosaur-like heads bobbing up and down.

A predominately working-class and Latino immigrant community of 58,000, Wilmington sits atop the third-largest oil field in the continental U.S. Five oil refineries release steam from nearly 200-foot stacks, their pipes and tanks clanging and hissing. Many of Wilmington’s residents work in the oil industry or in the nearby port, one of the country’s busiest. The Los Angeles Times called the neighborhood, wedged between freeways and the port about five miles from Long Beach, “an island in a sea of petroleum.”

But for 16-year-old Samantha Montes, Wilmington is just home: She calls it “the best neighborhood I could have grown up in,” because of its close-knit community. “You never feel like you’re left out of it.”

Montes just signed up to work with a local nonprofit, SBCC Thrive LA, that’s trying to clean up streets and create more green spaces in Wilmington, which might be the Los Angeles area’s most environmentally challenged community.

Pumpjacks extract oil from the Wilmington oil field. (David McNew/Reuters)

The problems in Wilmington begin with air pollution. Car and truck traffic from the two freeways that sandwich the neighborhood mix with emissions from cargo ships and refineries. According to the California EPA, Wilmington’s census tracts have a sky-high “pollution burden,” with scores in the 80s and 90s (100 is the worst); just five miles away, in the Palos Verdes Peninsula, scores were as low as 5.  

Wilmington’s pumpjacks emit noxious odors and pollutants like diesel particulates, methane, and carcinogenic benzene. Many of the pumps are surrounded by simple fences and sit only dozens of feet from buildings and spaces where children live, learn, and play. (Research shows that a building should be at least 2,500 feet from an active oil or gas well to minimize the effects of toxic emissions.) Children are even more susceptible, since they absorb higher levels of toxins and contaminants than adults do.

Not surprisingly, Wilmington has one of the highest cancer rates in Southern California and some of the state’s highest rates of asthma. Its residents also complain of headaches, nosebleeds, and other symptoms and diseases likely caused or exacerbated by the pollution.

Kids play only dozens of feet from an oil refinery. (Pat Sullivan/AP)

While whiter, wealthier areas of Los Angeles are also situated near active wells (though not quite as near as in Wilmington), those wells are often fully enclosed in structures made to look like office buildings, mitigating harmful effects. They also generally use electric rigs rather than diesel rigs, reducing pollution.

But change has been slow to come to Wilmington. Local activists—many of them young people—sued the city in 2015 for the discriminatory treatment of their communities; the city settled and implemented some changes, such as environmental impact studies and hearings for residents when companies propose expanding drilling sites. (The California Independent Petroleum Association, an oil and gas trade group, countersued.)

More recently, Ashley Hernandez, 25, a community organizer who grew up in Wilmington, worked with a coalition of more than 750 groups to launch a campaign that pressures Governor Jerry Brown to stop granting new permits for oil and gas extraction. “We deserve equitable neighborhoods, we deserve a right to clean air and clean water, and we need to make sure we move away from antiquated ways of energy,” she told the Huffington Post.

However, it’s not easy to get locals—both young and old—to support the efforts of Hernandez and her fellow activists to crack down on industrial pollution. After all, the refineries and the port are the major employers for many of Wilmington’s families. “Wilmington’s residents don’t necessarily see the industry as something negative,” said Liza Rivera, Director of Innovative Economic Initiatives at SBCC Thrive LA, the nonprofit working on green projects in Wilmington. “It’s part of their reality, and it allows many of them a roof over their heads.” Other residents are afraid to speak up about the pollution because of their undocumented status.

With this tension in mind, SBCC Thrive LA doesn’t try to directly take on the industries that families rely on. Instead, it aims to build goodwill among Wilmington’s residents and encourage them to care more about the neighborhood. With support from Raising Places, an initiative funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation whose goal is to create healthier environments for vulnerable kids and families in U.S. communities, Rivera and her colleagues canvassed the neighborhood to find out what was most needed and desired.  

The biggest request: open, green spaces where kids and families can can gather. Wilmington only has a handful of parks, and most homes are not within walking distance. The project will convert nine vacant, trash-filled lots into spaces for dog walking, urban farming, playing music, cooking out, and the like. “The idea is that anyone in Wilmington would be able to walk to a green space within 10 minutes,” Rivera said.  

Details and additional funding are still being worked out, but Rivera says whatever the spaces turn out to be, some should ideally serve teens. In addition to a lack of physical space to gather, Rivera noted that funding cuts to Wilmington’s schools have eliminated programs like art, music, shop, and home economics, taking away opportunities for teens to create.

SBCC Thrive LA’s other youth-centered project provides such an outlet. Later this month, high-school juniors and seniors, including Samantha Montes, will gather trash from Wilmington’s streets—tires, shoes, chairs, boxes, bathtubs—and decorate them. They’ll then plant flowers in them and sell them. “I’m looking forward to helping Wilmington become a more beautiful and cleaner place,” Montes said.

Sara Cantor Aye, project director of Raising Places, acknowledges that this small-scale beautification won’t change the bigger issues that the community faces with industry and regulation. But it shows young people who grow up in Wilmington that there are greener ways to make money than what they see in their immediate environment—an awareness that may serve them well as California aims to advance renewable energy, as well as jobs that go with it.

Katie Harr, a research fellow with Raising Places, agrees: “Though the planters and green spaces are small things, there’s a lot of intentionality behind them,” she said. “We’re playing a long game. We’re planting seeds for the future.”

Montes appears to already be on board. She speaks of how she’d like to see Wilmington’s community become more involved in making it a cleaner place to live, and she’s looking at a future that doesn’t involve working with the oil industry.

“I’d like to write young adult novels,” she said.

Funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation was provided to support our project "The Kids’ Zone."

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