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Westside Crude : The Political War Over Palisades Oil Drilling and an Analysis of What's at Stake for L.A.

September 25, 1988|BILL BOYARSKY | Bill Boyarsky , Times city-county bureau chief , has been covering Southern California politics since 1970.

THE HILLY STREETS below Dodger Stadium are more than 20 miles from the steep Pacific Palisades bluffs that face the Pacific Coast Highway and the sand and surf of Will Rogers State Beach. But these two areas of the city--one Asian, Latino and down at the heels, the other Westside, white and rich--have something in common. They both sit on oil fields. However, while drilling at the Westside site has been fiercely debated for two decades, oil has been pumped from the downtown field for almost 90 years, with the wells visible to the thousands who drive up Stadium Way to Dodger games. And very few people, especially those with influence, have objected. Because of that, these two parts of town have become symbols of the volatile issues surfacing in an expensive and potentially divisive city election this November over whether Occidental Petroleum Corp. should be allowed to drill for oil from a spot under the bluffs of the Palisades.

Los Angeles City Councilwoman Gloria Molina, who represents the poor hillsides on the downtown side of the stadium, is keenly aware of the symbolism of the two neighborhoods. She opposes Pacific Palisades oil drilling on environmental grounds, but wonders why there hasn't been a similar protest about wells in her area. "We did not have an opportunity to participate when the oil - drilling sites were found years ago and the machinery (was) put in," she says. "I think the Palisades people think it is just their issue. Someone said that this was different because it was protecting the coastline. I find that an elitist sentiment."

Molina is a small, intense, stubbornly independent Latina who got her job by challenging the boys in the male - dominated politics of the barrio. They opposed her candidacy for the State Assembly, but Molina won anyway. After treating Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown's operation with gutsy irreverence for five years, Molina returned home to run in a new 1st City Council District, created in a federal government effort to increase the Council's Latino representation.

In the summer of 1986, before Molina became city councilwoman, Petroleum Land Services Co. of Bakersfield obtained, with little notice, permission from the City Council to drill two exploratory oil wells in a parking lot near Elysian Park, just across Stadium Way from the Dodgers' advance-sale ticket office. There are existing wells throughout Molina's district, which sits on the city's first great oil discovery, the Los Angeles City Field, found in 1892. At Stadium Way and Coronel Street, Chavez Development Well No. 6 is pumping oil, emitting a quiet "thump" every five seconds. Across the street, behind a fence painted "Go Big Blue, Go Dodgers," four pumps and two tanks sit on a hillside.

The area was just emerging from years of being part of a political no man's land. Some of the city's poorest residents live in the neighborhood, a part of a great swath of the central city running from prosperous Mt. Washington south through the packed, miserable slum apartments housing Central American immigrants around the Santa Monica Freeway. It was a part of town split among three City Council districts and had, in practice, been represented by no one. Even community groups had difficulty following the drilling issue.

"We were not aware of the permit process, and I guess it just slipped through," says Sallie Neubauer, president of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, which has been working for more than two decades to preserve the 575-acre park. Neubauer's group had successfully resisted an attempt by Occidental to drill there in the 1970s, and this time members feared that if Petroleum Services hit oil, the park would be threatened.

"We were suspicious that later on (oil companies) might want to get into the park," she says. "This is the battle the citizens' committee has been fighting for more than 20 years--to keep the park for the people. And the fact that we live in a minority neighborhood makes it harder. Many of the people who use the park speak little English, and many don't speak it at all. A few years ago, we were pushing to get the Recreation and Parks Department to improve the irrigation. We got hundreds of signatures from people using the park. Then we sent membership solicitations to about 200 of them and received 150 back marked 'Not deliverable.' That told us many were afraid to reply because of their alien status. So it's an area that doesn't have many votes , and we have a tough job doing what we do."

But, in February, 1987, the area was made part of the new 1st Council District, and Molina was elected the district's councilwoman. Within a few months, she had taken control of the neglected area and the issue of oil drilling. "We brought it to Molina's attention and she took our side," Neubauer says.

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