Pope Francis’ 2015 encyclical on climate change, Laudato Si’reverberated around the world – as our planet’s most well-known religious leader weighed in on perhaps the most pressing problem facing humanity today. Francis’s call for the global community to exercise its moral obligation to care for the Earth and our neighbors has inspired people of all faiths everywhere. Such inspiration and obligation are particularly relevant to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which owns two properties housing toxic oil drilling operations in South Los Angeles. The Los Angeles Archdiocese is in a unique position to stand for environmental justice for thousands of Angelenos on the front lines of the fight over neighborhood oil drilling –- by ensuring that one of those operations, the notorious AllenCo drill site, remains permanently closed.
As the Senior Pastor at Holman United Methodist Church, my members and our neighbors – whether in their homes or convalescing at a nearby facility – are confronted with the impacts of urban oil drilling literally every day. The Murphy oil drill site is less than half a mile from our church and a stone’s throw from hundreds of homes. On a regular basis, the site uses dangerous chemicals known to cause asthma, headaches, nose bleeds, even cancer. It also sits on land owned by the Los Angeles Archdiocese.
The Murphy site contains a handful of the nearly 1,000 active oil wells in our City, which expose over 600,000 Angelenos to these chemicals. Most of these toxic wells, some 75 percent, are in Black and Brown communities in South LA. As a founding member of the coalition Standing Together Against Neighborhood Drilling (STAND-LA), our church is proud to join with community residents and environmental justice champions to work to end the dangerous and destructive practice of urban oil drilling.
The AllenCo drill site sits on land owned by the Archdiocese in the University Park area of South LA. Neighbors of the site complained for years of symptoms like chronic headaches, nosebleeds, and asthma attacks – and they got organized. After EPA investigators were overcome with fumes during a 2013 visit to the site, the EPA and Senator Barbara Boxer called for a shutdown and the company ceased operations. Since then, state air and environmental regulators and the Los Angeles City Attorney have gotten involved, with latter issuing an injunction and ordering AllenCo pay a $1.25 million penalty.
Now AllenCo is poised to resume operations. Since the sites closure, residents have been able to breathe easily, knowing they could open their windows and take a walk outside without feeling sick. If the site reopens, the health and livelihoods of residents, students and workers at nine schools, early education centers and two college campuses close by will be put at risk.
With the stroke of a pen, Archbishop Jose Gomez and the Archdiocese could terminate its lease with AllenCo Energy Inc, ensuring that the drilling site stays permanently closed. Such a courageous move would translate Pope Francis’s bold global declaration into bold local practice. While past appeals for action from local residents and community leaders have seemingly fallen on deaf ears at the Archdiocese, now is their chance to address climate change and protect children and families —at a time when residents in this heavily immigrant and Latino low income neighborhood need it most. This matter of environmental justice must be moved from dormancy to urgency.
Our congregation – along with STAND-LA – have also called on LA Archbishop Jose Gomez to terminate the Archdiocese’s lease with the owner of the Murphy site. We want the Archdiocese to meet its moral obligation to end human and environmental suffering at its own doorstep.
In June, the Los Angeles City Council passed a motion to study the health impacts of oil drilling in neighborhoods and explore prohibiting oil drilling in residential neighborhoods altogether. While long overdue, this step forward recognizes the realities many Angelenos face. We eagerly await the results of the study (due in November) and urge our elected leaders to take the next steps to end urban oil drilling. Our communities and environment cannot afford another day of inaction.
As an ordained Minister in the United Methodist Church for over 20 years, in my sixth year as the Senior Pastor at Holman Church, and my eighth year as an active member of the ecumenical, interfaith, and social justice movements in Los Angeles, I am persuaded that there can’t be social justice without environmental justice. This intersection demands a new level of integrity. Hence, I am calling on Archbishop Jose Gomez to honor the Pope’s moral call to prophetic action – Join us on the right side of history.
Kelvin Sauls is the senior pastor of the Holman United Methodist Church and a founding member of STAND-LA (Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling).