WILMINGTON — For 18 years, Hilario Chavez has lived on Broad Street in a neatly kept white stucco home across from a vacant lot littered with trash and overrun by weeds.
While much of Chavez's neighborhood has improved over the years, the lot across the street remains a dumping ground for passers-by. Discarded hamburger wrappers lie next to broken beer bottles; a pair of dilapidated cars sit rusting amid weeds and lumps of asphalt. For decades, the blackened pipes of an oil well have been visible behind a chain-link fence.
"It's a lost battle to keep it clean," said Chavez, 56, a longshoreman and father of three. "It's a dump. It's a wasteful shame to have a lot like this in the middle of a nice neighborhood."
Like hundreds of other undeveloped properties in Wilmington, the site near Chavez's home is used primarily for what lies beneath it: a rich oil field that yields millions of barrels of petroleum each year for both small and large producers.
But while Wilmington residents like Chavez say they have accepted the presence of oil production in their largely industrial community, they complain that oil companies allow many of their properties to deteriorate, causing further blight in an already neglected area.
"It looks terrible and it hurts the community a lot," Chavez said. "The companies have been bleeding these grounds for years. They should should put something back in the community."
If efforts by the city of Los Angeles are successful, that may begin happening soon.
For the last several months, city officials have been studying ways to tighten regulations governing Wilmington's oil operators. At the same time, officials are working to encourage voluntary improvements at all oil sites in Wilmington's residential and commercial areas within 1 1/2 years. Eventually, the city will ask for improvements at sites in industrial areas as well.
Among other things, the city is asking that oil producers landscape their properties, camouflage oil wells and fence the perimeters of oil sites, not just the wells as is now done. Los Angeles officials believe that such measures would reduce illegal dumping--which oil companies blame for much of the litter--while beautifying neighborhoods.
Exxon Co. USA, Wilmington's largest oil producer, has indicated that it will go along with the city's requests. Nevertheless, city officials are preparing an ordinance imposing a moratorium on oil production in Wilmington, to be used in the event that Exxon or other producers fail to comply voluntarily.
For Exxon alone, a moratorium could halt production of 6,000 barrels a day.
"It's irresponsible to the community for the sites not to be better managed," said Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores, who initiated the city's efforts. "It's a matter of mass neglect."
Officials at Exxon, which operates about 60% of Wilmington's estimated 655 oil wells, maintain that they have been good neighbors. Although they acknowledge that their properties sometimes become littered, they point out that the company has had its own cleanup program for more than 20 years and has been continually upgrading its properties.
"We're doing our level best to cooperate," said Exxon spokesman D. I. Bolding. "There hasn't been great interest in this until recently. We thought we had been operating in compliance with the city before."
No Complaints Yet
Officials at Sun Exploration and Production Co., which operates 136 wells, or 20% of Wilmington's total, said they have not received any complaints from residents in the last several years and have not yet been contacted by the city about the problem.
The company, most of whose oil wells are in industrial areas, has had a cleanup program since it started operating in Wilmington in the early 1970s, said Stan Blossom, district operations manager.
"There's an ongoing problem with people dumping stuff on our property--old couches, auto bodies," Blossom acknowledged. "But we've tried to maintain our sites. . . . We're not averse to improvements, but we'd have to look into what the city wants and what it would cost."
The problem of unkempt oil wells in Wilmington dates back to the establishment of many oil production sites in the 1930s, before Los Angeles had strict conditions regulating the aesthetics of oil production sites, city officials say.
For sites that were developed later, stricter conditions were applied piecemeal--city officials say it would be a "monumental task" to discern the specific conditions regulating each of Wilmington's 655 oil wells.
Currently, oil-producing properties in Wilmington, Los Angeles' most productive district, are regulated less for aesthetics than in any other area of the city, said Los Angeles Petroleum Administrator Hank Ganio. Moreover, because of the piecemeal application of regulations, the requirements that do exist are seldom enforced, according to Ganio, Flores and zoning officials.