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ARVIN, Calif.—On a blistering July afternoon, a rusty pumpjack bobs noisily as it sucks up tarry oil in the middle of a residential neighborhood in Arvin, a close-knit farmworker community in the heart of California oil country.
To an outsider, it’s a shock to see a pumpjack barely 25 feet from someone’s home. But for Yesinia Martinez, the dilapidated rig beyond her bedroom window is just something that’s always been there.
Her health problems, too, have always been there.
Every day is a struggle. “I wake up and I have, like, no energy to get up,” she said. “I get headaches often. My memory is horrible.”
Martinez personifies California’s failure to protect its residents from the harsh realities of living near fossil fuel extraction. Oil and gas operations have been linked to a growing list of serious health consequences, from birth defects to cancer, while the industry’s wastewater pollutes the state’s dwindling groundwater reserves. Meanwhile, environmental watchdogs armed with state-of-the-art imaging cameras routinely detect toxic emissions from neighborhood oil and gas wells and storage tanks, demonstrating the failure of state and regional regulators to keep communities safe.
People like Martinez have paid for that failure with their health. Martinez lost count of how many times she woke up as a kid feeling something wet on her face, only to realize her nose was bleeding. She’s long had stomach trouble and bouts of anemia. Now 21, she no longer has nosebleeds, but suffers from dry eyes and headaches, fatigue and memory problems that made it even harder to study when her local university went virtual during the pandemic. She’s been seeing specialists since last fall, when her stomach problems and dizzy spells got worse.
Her doctors suspect she may have an autoimmune disorder but won’t prescribe any medications until they settle on a diagnosis.
“It’s overwhelming because I keep going to all these doctor’s appointments since I was younger and they can’t tell me what’s wrong,” said Martinez. “But I know there’s something wrong with me because, if not, I wouldn’t be feeling like this on a daily basis.”
More than 2 million Californians, mostly poor people of color, live within a mile of an operating oil or gas well. People living near wells in other states have reported the same symptoms Martinez has struggled with most of her life, including nose, eye and throat irritation, severe headaches, fatigue and anemia.
It’s surprising there hasn’t been much more research on the hazards of living near oil and gas operations, said David González, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Particularly in California, where millions live near oil and gas wells.”
González suspects part of the reason relates to who’s affected. “We’re finding that people of color are disproportionately exposed to oil and gas wells and have suffered disproportionately,” he said. “And we know that these groups have historically been marginalized and their concerns not taken seriously.”
Arvin’s drinking water was contaminated for so long with such high levels of arsenic, found naturally in groundwater but also a byproduct of oil operations, that even though the water finally met safety standards last fall, most people won’t drink it. Martinez’s mother, for one, doesn’t trust that it’s safe. The fact that regulators allow a polluting oil well next to her home has shaken her confidence in official assurances.
Central Valley Water Board regulators conceded in a 2017 notice to oil operators that oil companies’ wastewater can contain contaminants, “particularly arsenic,” that exceed safety standards, while simultaneously claiming that arsenic groundwater contamination is “unlikely.”
Yet studies show that the oil industry’s longstanding practice of dumping its wastewater, known as produced water, into unlined pits contaminates groundwater, causing “profound geochemical changes in groundwater,” said Dominic DiGiulio, a senior research scientist with the nonprofit Physicians, Scientists and Engineers (PSE) for Healthy Energy.
When the typically salty produced water seeps underground, DiGiulio said, it can dislodge arsenic in sediments, indirectly causing arsenic groundwater contamination.
Contamination of Arvin’s groundwater would have “devastating impacts on the local economy and water supplies,” the City Council noted in 2018, when it revised its 1960s-era oil and gas rules.
Last fall, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that state oil and gas regulators issued “science-based” draft rules to prohibit new oil wells within 3,200 feet of homes, schools, clinics and other sensitive locations. “Our reliance on fossil fuels has resulted in more kids getting asthma, more children born with birth defects and more communities exposed to toxic, dangerous chemicals,” Newsom said.
Newsom reiterated his commitment to protect communities from the “harmful impacts of the oil industry” earlier this month. Yet the promised protections have still not materialized nearly three years after the governor directed the California Geologic Energy Management Division, or CalGEM, which regulates oil and gas, to safeguard the health of communities living near oil and gas operations. An agency spokesperson confirmed that the buffer zone rule still has not been implemented but did not respond when asked to explain why it’s taking so long.
Many of the oil and gas wells embedded in communities are older, low-production wells that pose serious risks to climate as well as health. It’s these low-producing wells, researchers reported in Nature Communications in April, that account for a disproportionately large source of emissions of the climate superpollutant methane, along with toxic volatile organic compounds like benzene and xylene.
Volatile organic compounds contribute to ozone and particulate matter, which kills more than 50,000 people nationwide a year. The extraction and refining of petroleum helps make Bakersfield, Kern County’s seat of government, among the nation’s worst cities for ozone and fine particle pollution, according to the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report.
Until recently, conflicts between state and regional regulations meant low-producing sites—like the one behind Martinez’s house—could leak these hazardous emissions. Air pollutants have been linked to an increased risk of cancer, respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, birth defects and cognitive and behavioral problems in children.
Mounting evidence shows that oil and gas wells pose grave risks to children. Pennsylvania children who lived within 1.2 miles of a well at birth were two to three times more likely to develop leukemia by age 7 than those who didn’t, Yale University researchers recently reported in Environmental Health Perspectives. The wells were hydraulically fractured, or fracked—that is, they injected materials at high pressure to extract fossil fuels. But both fracked and conventional operations use and release similar toxic chemicals and emissions, and both generate large quantities of produced water laced with toxic chemicals.
The first large-scale study in California, published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2020, found that pregnant women who lived closer to active oil and gas wells faced a higher risk of having babies born underweight and smaller than normal. A second study, led by U.C. Berkeley’s González, soon followed in Environmental Epidemiology and reported a higher risk of preterm birth among women who lived closer to producing wells in San Joaquin Valley counties, including Kern.
Children born preterm, small or underweight can face a lifetime of health issues, including impaired lung, heart and neurological function, and memory and attention problems.
None of Martinez’s doctors ever connected her litany of ailments to the pumpjack in her backyard or the scores of wells in and around town that help make Arvin’s air among the nation’s worst.
Martinez first heard about studies linking her health problems to fossil fuel extraction in early July, when community organizer Cesar Aguirre stopped by the house she shares with her parents and brother.
Aguirre, an organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, or CCEJN, has been helping the Martinezes deal with the rig behind their house since Yesinia was 16 years old. The rig unleashes such powerful vibrations they upend dishes in the china cabinet, send family photos crashing to the floor and keep Martinez’s parents awake even when they’re dead tired from working in the fields.
In July, Aguirre told Martinez that air samples CCEJN took around well sites in Arvin a few years ago contained the volatile organic compounds benzene, xylene and formaldehyde. Then he told her all the health problems the compounds have been linked to in studies: nosebleeds, headaches, fatigue, dizziness, loss of memory.
“Does any of that sound familiar?”
“Most of those symptoms you just named?” Martinez said, sighing. “Every day.”
License to Leak
Kern County profits from some of the most productive farmland in California and a fossil fuel industry that contributes tens of millions in tax revenue each year. But such riches have largely bypassed those living in the shadow of Kern County’s major industries.
The tiny town of Fuller Acres, about 12 miles north of Arvin, sits across the street from Kern Oil & Refining, yet about half of the town’s 600 or so residents live in poverty. Maria Villa has lived nearly 50 of her 72 years less than a mile from the refinery, which agreed to pay $500,000 in 2019 for violating federal laws to monitor and report emissions of toxic chemicals from its facility. Villa said the gas she smells every day upsets her stomach.
In Arvin, where 94 percent of residents are Latino, unemployment and poverty rates are nearly double the state average. That leaves families like the Martinezes without access to quality medical care and more vulnerable to a daunting array of environmental hazards.
Pesticides sprayed on the almonds and grapes bordering town blow into people’s homes and mingle with emissions from wells and exhaust from the nearby interstate to coat the valley in a perpetual brown murky haze.
Making matters worse, most oil companies around Arvin run low-volume operations that for years fell below the threshold for air regulations, averaging less than 6,000 barrels of crude oil throughout the county or managing tanks that receive less than 50 barrels a day. The rig behind the Martinez house has barely extracted 200 barrels since January.
Such “small producers” were long exempt from San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District rules under the assumption that they don’t leak enough to warrant oversight. That should have changed in 2017, when regulators with California’s Air Resources Board, or CARB, lowered the limit for allowable emissions of methane, which traps 86 times more heat than carbon dioxide.
But it took the air district a few years to figure out how to implement the state rules, environmental advocates and communities say.
It was late afternoon but still brutally hot when Aguirre surveyed an oil well less than 200 feet from Grow Academy, an elementary-middle school at the north end of town. “This site is almost always active,” he said. “And when it is, it’s very loud and produces emissions.”
Aguirre and his colleagues have long fielded numerous complaints from the Martinezes and other Arvin residents about the strong odors and noise coming from nearby wells. Studies link unwanted noise to numerous stress-related health problems, including sleep disruption, migraine headaches and heart disease.
Five years ago, Aguirre was installing an air monitor on the Martinezes’ roof, when he felt the house shaking. He assumed it was their air conditioner until Yesinia’s dad, Emmanuel, set him straight.
“The pumpjack was literally vibrating the top of the house,” Aguirre recalled.
The air monitor detected large spikes of harmful volatile organic compounds, which appeared to come from the well and oil storage tank behind the Martinez home.
Aguirre told the Martinezes that thanks to the air monitor on their roof, he could tell regulators, “Hey, Arvin, has some of the worst air in the state.”
CCEJN gathered more evidence of residential wells’ pollution by partnering with Earthworks, an environmental nonprofit. Earthworks uses specialized cameras that show oil and gas leaks the naked eye can’t see to document pollution and spur regulatory action.
Earthworks filmed leaks from the well and tank behind the Martinez home several times between 2017 and 2020 with state-of-the-art optical gas imaging, or OGI, cameras. The videos provided scientific evidence to support what everybody living nearby knew: foul odors meant neighborhood wells and tanks were releasing harmful gases.
“We know these communities have been suffering from uncontrolled emissions from oil and gas sites,” said Kyle Ferrar, a public health expert with the nonprofit FracTracker Alliance who collaborates with Earthworks as a certified OGI operator.
It’s well documented what’s in these emissions, Ferrar said, as he rattled off the list: methane, hydrocarbons, ethane, propane, short-chain hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds.
“They cause a lot of health impacts that have been troubling these communities for a long time,” he said. “Rashes, nosebleeds, headaches, cancer.”
Ferrar has recorded plumes of methane and harmful organic compounds escaping from several well sites in and around Arvin. He recorded leaks from the tank behind the Martinez house drifting toward a nearby playground and apartment complex, and another blowing toward an elementary school as kids played outside. Ferrar recalled feeling lightheaded and getting a headache as he filmed the emissions.
Operators are required to monitor their equipment for leaks and file reports with CARB, which regulates greenhouse gas emissions. If they are exempt from reporting to districts as small producers, a CARB spokesperson said, they still have to file leak and repair reports annually. But CARB delegates authority to enforce its methane rule to local air districts.
Earthworks filed several formal complaints with the San Joaquin Valley Air District to control the leaks, which come from well infrastructure and venting tanks. At the time, air regulators told them their hands were tied because the leaks were too small.
An air district spokesperson did not directly answer questions about what the district is doing to monitor leaks for small producers, but said it bought state-of-the-art detection equipment to identify leaks during inspections and complaint investigations.
The district responds to more than 3,000 community complaints a year, the spokesperson said, “and places the highest priority on responding as quickly as possible.”
State and regional regulators focus on leaks reported annually, filed by operators themselves. Meanwhile, Ferrar keeps finding leaks, which he did as recently as early August.
Standing next to the fence in the Martinezes’ backyard, Aguirre gestured toward their house, a clinic on the other side of the fence and the apartment complex and playground where Ferrar had filmed fumes heading. The state’s 3,200-foot buffer zone proposal was meant to protect these sites, known as “sensitive receptors” because they’re inhabited by children, patients and others who are particularly vulnerable to toxic exposures.
“There’s an example of almost every sensitive receptor there is, right there,” said Aguirre. “And the problem remains the same. Regulations with more exemptions than enforcement.”
Earthworks uses specialized cameras to reveal gases invisible to the naked eye, and detected methane and toxic emissions from the Simpson well behind the Martinez home seven times between 2017 and 2020.
The local exemptions gave Sun Mountain, the operator of the site behind the Martinez home, a license to leak for years, even as Yesinia Martinez and her mother, Maria, suffered from headaches, bouts of dizziness and other health problems.
Earthworks detected noxious fumes from the Sun Mountain site, known as the Simpson well, for at least two years before the air district finally required the operator to fix it. Sun Mountain ultimately failed to control the emissions and last year sold the site to another operator, Sequoia Exploration.
Sequoia Exploration’s previous owner sold the company in 2020, but it now has no publicly available contact information or website. The business address listed on Sequoia’s state filings belongs to a four-bedroom house with solar panels and a swimming pool in a residential development in Bakersfield.
Timothy Smale, who owned Sequoia until 2020, declined to share the new owner’s contact information. Smale said the leaks were “pretty benign in the scheme of things. ”
Anyway, it’s not leaks the public should be concerned about, Smale said, but the fact that the state’s putting the oil industry out of business. “And there will soon be no more oil and gas in California. And it’ll be bad for everybody.”
The Simpson well became the “poster child” for regulators’ failure to address leaks from small producers, said Nadia Steinzor, an independent environmental policy analyst who spent more than a decade at Earthworks researching oil and gas leaks nationwide.
In 2020, CARB started requiring operators to repair leaks as small as 1,000 parts per million.
CARB has been saying for years that these low-volume storage tanks don’t leak much or have only small leaks, said Steinzor. Now they’re requiring even small methane leaks to be fixed under the new rule.
“But what are they doing to make sure it’s actually being implemented? Are operators finding and fixing leaks to a larger degree than they did before?” Steinzor wondered. “Or are Arvin residents still complaining about the same set of wells they have for years?”
A CARB official said the agency has delegated authority to conduct inspections and enforce rules restricting methane emissions to air districts. The agency is working to develop plans that focus those inspections in communities that have identified the need for additional actions, the spokesperson said.
Following complaints on the Simpson well in April 2019, the San Joaquin Valley Air District identified a violation of the state’s regulation, said district spokesperson Jaime Holt. Since this initial investigation, the district has performed four additional compliance inspections and eight complaint investigations, Holt said. As a result, the district took action six times against the facility for violating both district and the state rules.
Surrounded by Risks
Many people in Arvin tell a remarkably similar story. They moved here because it seemed laid back or reminded them of their villages in Mexico. Then they started feeling the consequences of living on a productive oilfield, where a dozen wells operate within the city limits and another 70 skirt its edges.
Francisco Gonzalez and his wife live near Arvin High School, about a half mile from a site where Ferrar filmed a massive leak in 2018. They moved to Arvin from the outskirts of Los Angeles, thinking it would be a nice place to retire, grateful to leave the traffic behind.
When they bought their house in 2005, no one told them about the arsenic-tainted water or that the well at the end of the street leaked toxic emissions. “The system here is the less people know the less they’ll complain,” Gonzalez said through an interpreter.
Gonzalez would soon learn he had far more to worry about than contaminated water. In 2014 an underground pipeline across the street filled his neighbors’ homes with flammable gases, forcing them to evacuate. The dream house he and his wife bought with their life savings was sitting on a powder keg.
“That kind of opened up my eyes,” said Gonzalez, standing next to his meticulously tended front yard, a baseball cap embroidered with “Los Angeles” shielding his face from the late afternoon sun.
Over the eight-plus months the leaks kept Gonzalez’s neighbors out of their homes, he suffered from increasingly severe nosebleeds. Now he feels tightness in his chest and both he and his wife have trouble breathing. His wife goes outside just long enough to tend her garden.
Gonzalez and his wife could have lost their lives if one of his neighbors’ houses had exploded, he said, but no one from the city or county ever came to let them know what was going on. “I don’t feel safe, and I don’t know how long it will be until I feel safe,” he said.
He decided to do something about it. Many people in Arvin are fieldworkers who feel voiceless, Gonzalez said. But Gonzalez—who was 26 before he encountered electricity yet went on to repair wiring problems as a professional handyman—is all about self-empowerment. He resolved to speak on behalf of his neighbors, whose kids lived, played and went to school near oil wells spewing toxic gases.
Gonzalez volunteered with CCEJN, which deployed a “bucket brigade” of citizen scientists to collect toxic chemicals in the air with portable devices when residents reported a concern. Like the time a pregnant woman passed out across the street from Gonzalez’s house during the gas leak.
Air samples taken from her home and analyzed at an EPA-approved lab contained methane, cancer-causing benzene and other harmful compounds. Gonzalez presented the results to the Arvin City Council at a May 2018 meeting, arguing that toxic emissions from wells were exposing schoolkids and residents to unnecessary risks. He urged the council to update Arvin’s decades-old oil and gas ordinance by requiring a 300-foot setback between new wells and homes, schools, clinics and other sensitive sites—a year before Newsom directed state regulators to develop new health and safety rules.
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The oil industry brought people from all over the state to Arvin to fight the setback, Gonzalez said. But the community showed up in force, and ultimately prevailed, likely aided by a letter of support from former California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, now the federal Health and Human Services secretary.
The city council updated its ordinance and created a 300-foot buffer zone two months after Gonzalez’s presentation.
For CCEJN’s Aguirre, the fight for the setback laid bare the unequal forces at play: low-income people in small communities like Arvin must overcome the oil industry’s deep pockets and stable of lawyers to secure health safeguards.
“A lot of people don’t have the time to be asking the government to do what they should be doing anyways,” Aguirre said. “And it’s frustrating to say, ‘Hey, do your job please. My life depends on it.’”
Gonzalez, for his part, is proud of the setback victory, but said it’s not enough. It only applies to new wells, for one thing, and doesn’t address all the other problems that come with living on an active oilfield.
“I want them to take these wells away,” Gonzalez said.
Barring that, he’d love to move. But he and his wife invested everything they had in their home. And who would buy a house in a neighborhood that almost blew up? Gonzalez said. “Now we are stuck.”
A Plea for Empathy
Peer through the chainlink fence behind the Martinez house most days and you’ll see black goo glistening on the wellhead as the rig sucks up tarry oil barely 20 feet away. An asphalt-like odor often wafts from the rusty rig, not unlike the “oily smell” associated with leaks reported at low-production sites. The air district could take action against the well if there’s a complaint. But there’s no hope that any government agency will stop the pumpjack’s relentless rumbling, which robs Martinez’s mom, Maria, of much-needed sleep after a day picking grapes in the fields around Arvin.
“She has to go to work with little to no sleep because they wake up at about four or five in the morning,” Martinez said of her parents, interpreting for her mother. “As soon as she wakes up she feels dizzy.”
Years ago, Maria Martinez used to ask the oil workers who came to maintain the pump if they could build a big brick wall like the ones along freeways to block the noise and fumes. They always told her it wasn’t up to them, said Maria, still wearing the bandana that protects her from the valley’s punishing sun. If she’d known all the troubles the pumpjack would cause her family, she said, she never would have bought the house.
Yesinia Martinez always knew Arvin’s air was unhealthy. “It’s super, super polluted, and we’re just kind of sitting in the pollution.”
But when Aguirre told her about studies linking many of her symptoms to oil wells, she said, “it struck a nerve. This entire time I’ve been thinking that maybe I was just unlucky and these health problems are just because that’s how God wanted it to be.”
Now she suspects the source is closer to home.
Martinez wishes policymakers would care more about what people in her community—many of whom work in the fields—are forced to deal with.
“It would be nice for them to be a little bit more considerate and make things safer for them, considering that they are providing their fruits and vegetables,” she said.
There’s a saying that you don’t understand something until you experience it, Martinez said. She knows most policymakers aren’t likely to experience what people in Arvin have to deal with. “But they can at least try and put themselves in our shoes,” she said, “and see the struggles.”