Lisa Nieto: Now we're crossing, we're crossing over the bridge, the flood control, going to the west side.
Jameela Hammond: Hey, Jameela here. I’m driving with Lisa Nieto. We’re about 20 miles outside of Los Angeles, headed to the west side of Long Beach. We’re actually headed to the neighborhood Lisa grew up in.
Lisa Nieto at accident site: Our street was patched, always patched cause they were always digging, doing something, and marked like it is now. But we, the only thing, we didn't have these markers to show where the lines were, the pipelines, and I think that's what one of the new laws was. See, they have warnings where…Growing up, there was no warnings.
Hammond: “No warning about the pipelines.” See, Lisa and her family grew up near the intersection of Gale Avenue and West 28th Street. Fifty feet away, a chain link fence was all that separated them from the 710 interstate’s incessant fumes. This is the highway that links the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to the rest of the nation. These are the largest and busiest ports in the U.S. Less than two miles west of the 710 is the Carson refinery, which distills 363,000 barrels of crude oil a day. So it kind of makes sense that under their feet, under their homes, lay rows upon rows of massive pipes carrying huge volumes of toxic oil and gas.
Mark Nieto at accident site: you can smell it.
Lisa Nieto at accident site: You can smell the gas. Some people can't. I have a bad nose, so I, I can't smell it, but imagine, you could see that it's coming out.
Hammond: And with no warning signs, with no visible signs of danger at all, you might forget your life is threatened, at all times, just by where you are. Unless of course you’re forced to remember. Unless something horrible happens… Lisa Nieto at accident site: This is where, this is the corner where I picked my dad up at, right here. And this was all blocked off. We couldn't get in; the flames were all down here. It was all burning down the gutter. All the way this way. And here's Mr. Davis' house and here's, uh, this is the house that's rebuilt. This is the corner.
Hammond: Over the course of ten episodes, I’m joining our team of five reporters throughout the U.S., as we pull back the curtain to look at how our history with land has shaped every aspect of our lives. It's a tricky thing, land. Our very existence is critically tied to it. And yet, we don't all get equal access. Why? How exactly did we get to this moment in time? In Plot of Land, we’ll break down how race, class, and power have been used to build and maintain unfair systems that determine how land is used. These systems harm nearly everyone, and create so many inequities that they might seem normal, unavoidable, or even natural. But these are the products of deliberate choices made by real people. It's time to reckon with these decisions. It’s time to understand this history so we can help build a just future for everybody. This is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. I'm Jameela Hammond and this is Plot of Land.
So far in Plot of Land we’ve looked at how virtual land can be an all-too-appropriate mirror for looking at our real systems of land commodification and housing, and we examined how private equity, a lack of tenant rights, and land speculation have contributed to our housing crisis. Over the next seven episodes we’ll spend time with a family in Boley, Oklahoma who may just well be the state’s last Black ranchers. We’ll also go to New York City to look at how a government investment in housing helped an entire generation make Roosevelt Island an economically diverse and multi-racial neighborhood. And then, what happens when the government disinvests. We’ll head to Jonesland, where 66 acres of family land is part of a movement—communities fighting for survival in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley. And then we’ll look at how repair, and Land Back efforts are paving new ways of coexisting with past injustices. We’ll look at the strings that get attached, and how systems can be reimagined.
But for our next story, we’re going to start in my home city of Los Angeles, where we’ll head to Long Beach. That’s where Plot of Land’s sound designer and engineer, Mark Nieto, grew up. Here, we’re going to look at what happens when the place we call home, the communities we form around it, and our sense of safety, what happens when all of that is at the mercy of forces far outside our control? The woman you heard from at the top of this episode? That’s Lisa Nieto, Mark’s mom. Here’s Mark.
Mark Nieto: I asked my mom to take us to the neighborhood where she grew up. I didn't grow up here, I grew up a few miles away, but when I was a kid, my grandpa would come back here and bring me along on his errands. Back then, I couldn't put my finger on it, but it felt different. Sometimes he would drive down their old street and point out how it had changed. Everyone in my family had all moved away - that includes my mom Lisa, her brothers, Al Jr. and Richard, and her sister, Jackie. But the way that my family talked about it...they talked about it like it was home.
Lisa Nieto: I remember with families, I just have the idea of —we were a neighborhood, we played with all the kids on the block. You know, we rode our bikes. We used to play football. That we lived on the corner, a dead end, and we played baseball and we walked to school every day and um, we just played up and down the street.
Mark Nieto: My mom's sister, Jackie, remembers walking as a kid to the grocery store, and saying “hi” to the neighbors along the way.
Jackie Casillas: Yeah, I had a lot of fun memories between, playing tennis on the freeway wall or flying a kite on that dead end. And then you know, that was kind of the neighborhood, but a lot of good memories, you know.
Mark Nieto: It's estimated that more than 40,000 diesel trucks pass through the 710 every day. For as loud as that could be, my Mom says they didn’t mind it so much.
Lisa Nieto: We would always help people that broke down. They had, they needed gas, we'd give them gas or they would have one time, one time, a, a big semi truck dropped a whole bunch of tuna cans, empty tuna cans on the freeway. So we were out there trying to pick 'em up! And then, you know, we would help the people if they were stranded on the freeway.
Mark Nieto: Across the street from my family lived a man named Robert Davis. He’s in his 80s now, but back then Mr. Davis owned a shoe repair shop at the end of the block.
Robert Davis: Robert Davis. All I can say. I may well say I'm from Long Beach. I've been here since - 60 years!
Mark Nieto: What was the neighborhood like when you first moved in here?
Davis: Beautiful. Quiet. Manicured lawns. It was just so peaceful. So I just enjoyed the peace and quietness.
Mark Nieto: Did you know anything about the oil or the refineries, the pipes that were going through here before you moved into the neighborhood?
Davis: No, I never knew they had pipelines in here. But we used to go down, uh, 28th to the corner house right at Santa Fe; the guy's house was splashed with oil all the time, but they said it's a pipe, oil pipeline, that bust, and it’d mess his yard up and splash his house. So, the oil company’d have to go and fix it up and clean it up. But I never thought the pipeline was here.
Lisa Nieto: You know, oil's been around forever. I have, my grandparents lived in Wilmington, so see they're even close to the refineries and next door to their house, growing up we would play next to the oil derrick, the pumping. And we were always told, don't get near it ‘cause it would hit us, you know, it would crush us. But so, technically, I guess I've always grown up around the oil.
Mark Nieto: On December 1, 1980, an underground pipeline ruptured next to my family's home here. The pipeline was transporting a liquid called naphtha, which is used as part of the petroleum refinement process. It's volatile and very flammable.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board’s official accident report, there was a miscommunication between the sending and receiving refineries. The receiving refinery was not prepared for the incoming naphtha, which caused the line to build up with excessive pressure. This should have set off alarms, but a faulty meter failed to register what was happening. The pipe was under such extreme pressure, that when it eventually burst, it sent liquid spraying into the air. And then something ignited that liquid and it burned my family's home to the ground. My family lost everything that day. I was born a few years later and even though I wasn't alive for it, I feel like I inherited some of my family's trauma from the accident. Three years ago I decided to look up the accident report. Where some people might revisit their old family photo albums, instead, I had this dry government document. I was trying to fill in some gaps and to make sense of this awful moment in my family's history; trying to make sense of how it’d impacted us, how it had impacted me. But I felt like the report only told a fraction of what actually happened. A warning to listeners, what you’re about to hear is graphic.
MR. DAVIS’ STORY
Mark Nieto: Robert Davis remembers closing his shoe store and getting home around 6:30 that evening.
Davis: And I heard the gurgling of it, and I looked out there and oil was bubbling up out of the street.
Mark Nieto: He went to tell his neighbors, my family, to make sure that they knew. And that’s when it exploded.
Davis: Then when I - as soon as I got to your house, boom, I mean flames 50 feet tall went up and I was caught in the middle of all the flame. And I couldn't see, that's why my face and stuff got burned so badly.
Mark Nieto: Still on fire, he made it to a nearby water hose.
Davis: But my hand was burned so badly, I couldn't even twist the knob on it.
Mark Nieto: Later, doctors told him that was actually a good thing. The water would have taken off all of his skin. Even as it was, the doctors had to give him skin grafts.
Davis: They said, well…we'll graft them, but he’ll probably never use them again. But they don't know God's work! [laughs] That’s one thing! I depend on the Lord, Jesus Christ, and therefore I wasn't worried. I even thought that I would be home within two or three days.
Mark Nieto: It was three months before he left the hospital. He was 40 years old at the time. My mom was 24.
Lisa Nieto: My parents when they, um, first realized it, the pipe had burst because they heard it hitting the window screen, like rain, like water was hitting, hitting the screen on the window. So they knew something was wrong. And the fire hadn't ignited yet.
Mark Nieto: My mom’s brother, my uncle Richard, was in the back of my grandparents’ house, in a trailer. When the explosion erupted, he was actually walking from the trailer to the back door of the house to check on my grandparents. The explosion immediately set him on fire.
Lisa Nieto: All they could see was blue and orange flame before it ignited. That's what it was like. And soon as that spark…like, what they were saying - either the water heater or a spark from a car - ignited it. And then that's when everything blew up. It set him on fire. So all the, the vapor, all the air, you know, was in the air. And then that's what set Richard on fire. And then he rolled himself out in the back.
Mark Nieto: My grandparents couldn’t get out the front door, the outside flames had blocked them in. So they ran to the back door, and there they saw Richard on the ground, on fire. He managed to roll the fire out, and got my grandparents out of the house. But all the backyards there were fenced in. So Richard and my grandfather started knocking down fences, trying to get to safety. Any fence they couldn’t knock down, Richard carried my grandmother over it.
Lisa Nieto: They were jumping over, pulling out fences, whatever they had to do to get out the back. But Richard was helping them and he was burned; all his clothes were frayed, my Mom would say that, but Richard helped her get out.
Mark Nieto: My Mom’s sister, my aunt Jackie, still thinks about how earlier in the day, Richard had taken her to ballet class. And how my grandfather had told Richard to come home right away. “Don’t stop and hang out with your friends,” he’d said. And so Richard listened, but if he hadn’t, Jackie said, Richard probably wouldn’t have been there to help save their parents.
Mark Nieto: Jackie was just 14 when the accident happened. She was still at ballet class, which was near their home, and remembers hearing tons of sirens. But nobody knew what was happening. She got a ride home from a classmate, but emergency crews had blocked off the streets.
Casillas: You know, my recollection is just chaos. Cause there were just, fire engines and sirens and police and people and trying to back up people.
Mark Nieto: So she got out of the car and tried to walk home.
Casillas: I got to the corner and then I saw everything in flames, yeah. Yeah. I got to the corner and then I saw this big, you know, you know, palm tree in flames. And the only reason I'm crying, and I'm sorry, because it was so sad to me, because I didn't know what was going on and I was scared. And then, I was asking people, What's going on? Cause it was all in flames. I said, Where are the people in the house? That's my family. And then they told me everybody was dead.
Mark Nieto: Our family survived the explosion. But that trauma, of being told that your family was dead, she still carries it with her today.
Casillas: I just thought, yeah, I don't even know how that I can even deal with this. It's like that after the fact, like my memory gets really cloudy about things after they said like, Your family's dead. Because I just kept remembering like, that can't be.
Lisa Nieto: It just kept flowing down the gutter and then down towards the end it turned around and came down the other side, and that's why it caused so much damage. ‘Cause it just kept flowing. But yeah, nobody knew what was going on. Nobody knew what was the, even the, the city and the fire (department); nobody knew. Nobody knew who was in control, who was in charge, what was going, what was happening. That's why there was so much damage.
Mark Nieto: It took over two hours for the fire to be extinguished. Nobody could pinpoint the source. Not the oil companies, the refineries, the city of Long Beach, or the fire department - nobody could figure out what was fueling the fire. And predictably, nobody could say exactly how the fire started.
Lisa Nieto: My father said it could have been our water heater pilot light or, we had a dip in the dead end on Gale Avenue. And when the lowrider cars in the neighborhood, when they would go there fast, it would hit the muffler and spark and that could have ignited the naphthalene and set everything on fire.
Davis: The city said that somebody sparked a match. It wasn't me. I didn't have a match to spark at the time.
Casillas: I remember hearing the stories that it was like a valve that didn't get caught and that it had already ruptured once and then they repaired it and then it, you know, this was the second thing that, you know, caused, basically taking everything away from us. And I remember mad thinking like, those big oil people don't care about us.
Mark Nieto: This all happened in December, 1980, but earlier that year in September, the same pipe had burst, but nothing ignited it. There was no explosion, no fire. So in September, that hole in the pipeline got patched, and three months later, guess where the explosion occurred? The same hole. The issue shouldn’t have been what sparked it.
Mark Nieto: I wanted to get some context for all this, so I reached out to Sarah Elkind. She’s an urban environmental historian who’s focused on environmental issues in Los Angeles. Specifically, on oil in L.A. For thousands of years, she says Native Americans and Indigenous people knew about oil seeps and places like the La Brea Tar Pits. But the first successful oil well wasn’t built in the area until the 1890s, when downtown L.A. was still emerging.
Elkind: Los Angeles was not very well developed yet, but it was subdivided for residential housing. And so there are pictures - they're fascinating pictures - of the L.A. city field is what it was called, this first big oil field in the late 1890s. Of city streets with the light standards and ornamental light posts and no houses or buildings in sight and just oil wells on these city streets.
Mark Nieto: Some 20-to-30 years later my great-grandfather emigrated from Mexico and settled in Long Beach. By then, drilling was fully underway in L.A. but so was a population boom—between 1910 and 1930 L.A County’s population grew from 500,000 to 2.2 million.
Elkind: There are pictures of Los Angeles at this time period where like Signal Hill is just a hill. It almost looks like a forest of derricks. They’re so closely packed.
Mark Nieto: In the middle of the 51-square-mile city of Long Beach is Signal Hill, a completely separate city, all of 2.2 square miles. It was incorporated in 1924, after the discovery of oil caused hundreds of derricks to go up almost overnight. Sarah Elkind says the rampant land speculation that’s so embedded in L.A.’s history came out of this oil boom. But it came at a cost.
Elkind: It's devastating to the communities. On the one hand, if you're able to lease your land, you can make a lot of money from your property. And that's why people want to drill, is, they wanna extract the resource, they wanna make money from their land.
Mark Nieto: But oil isn’t like coal, it’s not like other mineral rights. Oil moves, it’s fluid. And you don’t actually own the oil that runs underneath your feet until you capture it, until you’ve put it in a barrel.
Elkind: People often kind of compare it to wildlife crossing your property. So wild game, crossing your property. You can't own a deer that's crossing your property. You own a deer by capturing the deer. So, it's that kind of a concept. And that creates in practice and in these urban oil fields where there are so many different people who own so many different oil wells, that creates a real incentive to produce oil quickly before everybody else gets it.
Mark Nieto: L.A.’s oil deposits were highly pressurized, which meant that the oil came out of wells so fast that the friction caused it to reach combustible temperatures. All of this was very destructive for people who lived nearby.
Elkind: So it was very common for new wells to come in and gush and spray oil all over the place. There were devastating fires and explosions on a regular basis. Residential streets were not designed for heavy equipment, but heavy equipment was moving through these residential areas to service the oil wells and destroying the streets.
Mark Nieto: Fire hydrants routinely broke too, making it harder to fight the fires and explosions that were erupting all over the place. And then World War II came. The war solidified L.A.’s transformation from a sleepy town to an industrial powerhouse. Sarah Elkind says the U.S. military had become petroleum-based, so that by 1941, trucks, tanks, ships, nearly everything was running off of oil products. For oil companies, this meant drilling everywhere, to meet that demand.
Elkind: Up through the 1930s, people just drilled where the oil was. So there's an oil well on a golf course in Westwood, there's an oil well in Beverly Hills. You know, there's oil in Beverly Hills. The extraction is taking place everywhere.
Mark Nieto: When World War II ended, however, so did the “drill everywhere” policies. Drilling as a whole didn’t stop, but the zoning variances that had allowed companies to drill almost everywhere, they stopped being granted in certain places.
Elkind: So by 1945, the City Council is refusing to grant a zoning variance for more oil development of that Westwood golf course area, but they are granting zoning variances for drilling in Wilmington and Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights.
Mark Nieto: Wilmington, Boyle Heights, Lincoln Heights—all communities of color with large immigrant populations. Groups of people that, by this point, had been targeted by redlining and other racist housing policies. Groups of people who City Council and other government officials didn’t listen to when they objected to being targeted and discriminated against.
Elkind: And that's, I think, where redlining and oil development start to kind of come together. And it's partly because the communities were redlined because there was lots of drilling there. If the wells and the development preexisted the 1930s redlining, that shaped the redlining, which then shaped the ethnic and racial compositions of the city.
Mark Nieto: This focus on communities of color, Sarah Elkind said, created what we call today ‘sacrifice zones.’
Elkind: And then those areas become the places with the lowest property values where, when you need to, uh, when you need places for nuisance industries, when you need places for oil refineries, they go there. But the oil refineries are also partly where they are because they're near the port. You can get oil in and out. It's very practical. But, you've also got people living around them, and that's a bit of a problem. That's a very big problem.
Mark Nieto: All of this feels like what was missing from the accident report; [music] the history, the context. Industry vs. people. Oil and gas vs. homes and communities.
My family, and their old neighbors, have never forgotten that horrific day in 1980. My mom’s sister Jackie remembers hugging my grandpa that night after they’d gotten to safety. A few hours before, she’d thought they were all dead.
Casillas: I remember talking to grandma about this and I was like, it's like you have, like, nothing left, you know? And, you know, she would always tell me, and I - to this day - I still, it's the way I live my life, you know, like, you can't, you can't value all of these, like, material things because, like, we're alive and we're all here together.
Mark Nieto: When the fires were put out, 12 houses were severely damaged along with 11 cars. Of the 12 damaged houses, 11 were still standing, the 12th was my family’s home. It was completely incinerated.
Thankfully no one was killed, but everyone in the neighborhood was touched by it. Robert Davis was awarded the key to the city for helping save his neighbors that night. And ever since, he’s advocated against the construction of pipelines in residential areas. But that night, he almost died.
Davis: Well, I was burned - 65 percent of my body. Part of a ear gone. They were gonna amputate my right leg ‘cause it wasn't getting any circulation in it. Oh, they…I was just burned so bad. Just, whoo.
Mark Nieto: My uncle Richard, who helped save my grandparents - he suffered 2nd degree burns on his hands, his arms, his legs, and his face.
Lisa Nieto: I think we were focused on my brother, just that my brother would be okay. I just remember seeing him one time and I could, he was just burnt, like a crisp. He was in a lot of pain.
Mark Nieto: My mom says, for a long time, that everyone was just in shock. But they had to keep going.
Lisa Nieto: But I didn't wanna talk about it. You just don't wanna really talk about it. Because you keep thinking…too many questions. You just keep, you know, your, your - it's disbelief, you know. You just lose everything in one day.
Casillas: You kinda go through things where you get mad at like the big, you know, ARCO company for doing that to my family. And I just was like, they don't even care about us because they don't care about Long Beach or this part of Long Beach. Would something have been different if it was a different neighborhood, you know? What if it hadn't been on the west side of Long Beach, you know, how much more attention or how much more pressure would've put on ARCO to do right by everybody? If it was a richer neighborhood, would it happen? Could they do something like this and just let all of the safety, quality checks, like the safety checks, would they just kind of be, keep slacking? It's almost like they don't care.
Mark Nieto: But for whatever feelings of injustice remain, Robert Davis said he’s never going to leave Long Beach. And my mom still goes back to the neighborhood to see friends and to catch up on life there.
Lisa Nieto: I'm still gonna love Long Beach no matter what happens in Long Beach. I hope my son stays in Long Beach, but I don't know. But I, my sister lives in Long Beach. Her kids grew up in Long Beach. We went out to Long (Beach) - we love Long Beach! We're just, we're not gonna leave Long Beach. Even my oldest brother, he's left, he's left Long (Beach); he's like, we can't get you out. The roots are too deep. And he's right! We're not going, we're not. We're even buried in Long Beach. We're buried at All Souls. My parents are buried, so they're not leaving Long Beach.
Mark Nieto: The night of the accident, my Mom’s sister Jackie finally reconnected with our family. The next day she went back to where their home was. It was a pile of ash.
Casillas: You could kind of see where the rooms were, based on the framing. And then, he said to go check in his bedroom to dig in the ashes. And I remember going through, kind of the backyard, and going through the kitchen area and I found a spoon. So I'm just sitting in the hallway digging with my spoon and, um, and then, you're upset about a lot of things. But then I found the sacred heart of Jesus picture that was burnt up to just his face. And I said, look what I found. It's like, you know, like a sign from God. Like, we're okay, you know, that I found this, this picture.
Mark Nieto: My mom still has that picture hanging in her house. In fact, when Jameela and I were interviewing her, she brought it out and showed us.
Lisa Nieto: I have a picture of Jesus, and it's a 10x17. And we still have his face. It's now, it's like a 5x7. And it was burnt all around the edges, but his face was still there. And we still have that picture.
Lisa Nieto: Yeah. See it hanging in there?
Hammond: That's next level stuff right there.
Lisa Nieto: Uh-huh…next level.
Hammond: Wow. Wow. Wow.
Hammond: Mark, how’re you feeling? This is really heavy stuff.
Mark Nieto: Yeah, I mean it’s definitely traumatic, hearing these stories again, and reopening the wounds. What I keep coming back to is; what would life have been like if the accident hadn't happened? Would my grandparents have stayed on Gale Avenue? Even though my family moved away after the accident, they always referred to Gale Avenue as their home. If people asked them where they came from, they’d say Oh, we’re from the west side, from Gale Avenue. And I have my own memories of the neighborhood, too. I learned to swim at the public park not far from Gale, and I asked my mom about this feeling I have—being split between two homes; the one I know and the place that everyone older than me calls home. And how I’ll never know it the way that they do.
Mark Nieto: Like you said, Gale was, was diverse. There was a lot of different kinds of families there, and over time, since the 80s, it has changed. It's not, and that's something else I kind of realized too. You know, if I had grown up there, I would've gone to a different school, gone to a different church, gone to a different hospital, all that stuff.
Lisa Nieto: Exactly Mark. [music] Right, right. That's like what you're, you're trying to find out where your family came from, right? That's now, if growing up over there would've been a totally different upbringing, you know, grandpa, my parents were always in force of education, doing better and moving on and you know, like you say, who knows if we still would've been there? We don't know. We don't know how things would've turned out.
Mark Nieto: It's a hard thing to come to terms with, that the life that I have, or opportunities I've been given, might well be a product of this tragic accident. Obviously there's no way to know how my life would have turned out, but there are certain aspects that I can point to and say that yeah, my family is undoubtedly better off for not living there anymore.
We're no longer next to the 710 freeway and all of its pollution, pollution that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic’s high shipping volumes. That area’s been called a 'diesel death zone' because it has one of the nation’s highest asthma and cancer rates. The more that I reflect on the accident, the more that I think about all the traumatic events that families endure so the next generation can live better lives. How we compartmentalize our trauma, just to keep moving, to keep pushing towards the future.
And maybe that’s what unites us: the various ways that we sever ourselves and our identities in pursuit of the American Dream. What kinds of trauma do we carry when we lose track of where we come from? Even though my mom and her parents were born in the U.S., it's a feeling that I’ve heard expressed among children of immigrants. A kind of survivor’s guilt for what their parents had to go through.
Hammond: That reminds me of when we were talking with your Mom about the word ‘resilience.’
Mark Nieto: Yeah, I hesitate to use that word, because implied in ‘resilience’ is this necessity to be resilient. That term ‘resilience’ hides inequities. It gives a pass to the people at fault, because they’re not the ones feeling the burden. Those with power and resources know they can put pressure on vulnerable communities without facing any consequences. People shouldn’t be forced to be resilient, this never should have happened to my family and their neighbors, and it's tragic that that was their opportunity to show resilience.
Hammond: And so many communities are still being forced to be resilient in the face of environmental racism.
Mark Nieto: Exactly, these issues haven’t gone away. Groups like Communities for a Better Environment, or CBE, are fighting for environmental justice across California. I spoke with Ashley Hernandez, an organizer with CBE, about the fight to protect the most vulnerable people. Hernandez lives in Wilmington, California, just west of Long Beach, and also where my grandma was born and raised.
Ashley Hernandez: So my history with Wilmington starts in the early ‘90s, really. My family originally comes from El Salvador. My parents ended up coming to Wilmington in particular due to work.
Mark Nieto: Even as a young kid, Hernandez remembers seeing smokestacks off in the distance. She didn’t really understand it, but when she got older…
Hernandez: My teachers got cancer. That's when I started dealing with nosebleeds, when my friends were dealing with nosebleeds, when my mom was using the nebulizer for the first time. That's one of my first memories when we moved to Wilmington, was laying on my bed, watching my mom trying to breathe, and using a nebulizer to help her breathe ‘cause it made a god-awful sound.
Mark Nieto: And in high school, she really started connecting the dots. Oil companies were trying to buy goodwill, they were trying to buy people’s silence.
Hernandez: There was always something. There was an explosion; there was a event that was funded by the oil industry. There was gifts or rewards given to grade school kids for passing their multiplication tests. These were, like, sometimes pencils that were donated from the refineries or oil drilling sites, right? High school was the “A-ha” moment. That was the moment that I was like, so this is why everything has happened in the way that it has happened.
Mark Nieto: After that, Hernandez said she had to do something. In 2012 she joined Communities for a Better Environment as a youth organizer. By that time, the oil industries had worked hard to win favor in the community. They had a lot of political influence and perhaps most importantly, they were a major employer in the region. Hernandez said the oil companies were tactical. They'd give away free car washes for a year, or free insulation or window treatments. So in an area where people were struggling financially, it wasn't always easy for community organizers. Because even if you know something’s wrong and harmful, what if saying something about it jeopardizes your ability to provide for you, and your family?
Hernandez: That's really important to recognize. Wilmington's low-income. We have a majority population of people of color. We have a migrant community, a monolingual community. And so there's a lot of reasons why you don't ask questions, right? There's a lot of institutional obstacles that people in our communities have faced. We didn't want to push boundaries. Because you wanna secure, protect, resources that are very limited in a low-income community. And so asking questions on the frontline is something that isn't always encouraged. And I have to be honest, when I first started organizing here, I feel like a lot of people were resistant to CBE. They were resistant to us, they were saying Don’t do it. You’re gonna cause more harm in the community than actual good. Don’t fight these oil industries. Don’t fight the oil operators because you're not gonna get the change that you want.
Mark Nieto: All this can feel overwhelming. Environmental injustices loom so large, and often go back so far, that trying to dismantle them can feel daunting. That’s where collective action, and groups like Communities for a Better Environment come in.
In 2013, they joined with six other local, grassroots groups to form a larger coalition called Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling, or STAND-L.A. In January, 2023, after years of organizing and building momentum, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance to ban new oil wells and, over the next 20 years, phase out existing drilling operations. A month earlier, L.A. City Council passed a similar measure. And the year before, Culver City.
Hernandez: It wasn't possible without the unity of Black, Brown, Indigenous, undocumented frontline communities. That's how the real change was created here. And so, um, this is crazy because no one ever, ever, ever thought that the city of L.A. would phase out oil drilling.
Mark Nieto: And it’s not just L.A. In September, 2022, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed S.B. 1137. It’s a new statewide law that requires oil and gas companies to maintain a minimum buffer zone of 3,200 feet between its wells and any home, school, hospital, or nursing home. It also requires companies to monitor leaks and emissions and install more alarms.
Hernandez: This is a massive victory for our state. And this is a huge first step. As we know, oil drilling should not be in any neighborhood, but having a set buffer within these couple of feet is a great first step. This was signed by Governor Newsom. That conversation began in Wilmington. We gave Governor Newsom the tour. So, the leadership - people are looking at Wilmington. We are resisting, and that's all we have to do is just say, No. We don't want to be subjected to this. We do not deserve toxic air, and we deserve clean and healthy neighborhoods for all of us to grow up in.
Hammond: These wins are incredible. And California is definitely one of the most progressive states, but it’s also deeply tied to systems that have produced these inequities.
Mark Nieto: Yeah, not only does the state have the largest economy in the U.S., but if California was its own country, it would have the fifth-largest GDP in the world.
Hammond: And of all the industries that make up California’s giant GDP, 22 percent of them rely on the oil and gas industry’s success. For all of its banning and buffering, that’s a ton of money–and infrastructure—still directly tied to it.
Mark Nieto: And a ton of land. When I talked with Sarah Elkind, the urban environmental historian, she described an event she attended on Signal Hill about 8 years ago. This oil company was describing well pads, where their drilling equipment is situated, and how proud it was to have made their well pads the same size as a residential house lot. They said once the wells ran dry, they could flip the land, for even more profit. And this is something that Elkind’s been chewing on for a long time. If we’re destined to live in an extractive economy, how can we structure it so it doesn’t keep extracting at the cost of people’s lives?
Elkind: So what I'm interested in are the conversations, the way people try to contain the side effects of that extraction, whether the side effect is massive, is oil running down the streets and whole city blocks catching on fire or huge populations of people who are suffering with very, very severe public health problems.
Hammond: Elkind said most of the solutions she’s seen have all redistributed resources upward—they’ve all ultimately benefited the people committing the harm.
Elkind: Let's solve oil drilling in these urban oil fields by concentrating oil drilling, which then concentrates ownership of oil. That's not great.
Mark Nieto: How do we not use the mechanics of an inequitable system to solve the inequities of that system, when that’s all that seems to be at our disposal?
Elkind: Is there a way to address the most profound environmental and economic consequences of resource extraction that doesn't concentrate resources upwards and create sacrifice zones? Like, is there a vision, is there a way to do this? Have there been examples in the past where the resource management and extraction did not lead to this kind of economic and environmental injustice?
Mark Nieto: And that’s the part that really stuck with me. The part we’ll hear more about later in this series, the part that looks at this radical reimagining.
Hammond: And I think part of that is also what we started this story with—the feeling we have when our homes, our communities, and our very sense of safety, when all of that feels determined and dictated by forces bigger than us, more entrenched and more powerful than us—where do we possibly go?
Mark Nieto: Exactly. And that’s what makes Ashley Hernandez, and the Communities for a Better Environment, and the whole STAND-L.A. coalition so essential. They’re providing a collective voice, a united front, to challenge injustices, to exert their power in the face of giants.
Hammond: Next time on Plot of Land we head to Oklahoma, where we’ll spend time with a family that may well be the state’s last Black ranchers. We’ll dig into what happens when your community is literally your family, and how that family bands together to press for equitable access to resources, and justice. And we’ll look at what happens when displacement has occurred for so long and on such a large scale that collective organizing is challenging to its core. Next time on Plot of Land.
Plot of Land is a Monument Lab production with funding from the Ford Foundation and music by Blue Dot Sessions. The music throughout this episode was composed by Mark Nieto. And please—share these stories—and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts. I’m Jameela Hammond and thank you for listening to Plot of Land.