Oped by CA, Sacramento Councilmember Katie Valenzuela

December 2020

I grew up in Oildale in Kern County. My most vivid memory is lying chest down on a metal table in a doctor’s office because I had spent the entire night struggling to breathe, my chest was aching from coughing and trying to get air into my lungs. Prostrate on that cold metal table was the first relief I’d felt to those sore muscles. It was right before I was taken to the hospital because I couldn’t breathe properly. At the time, I thought it was a part of a normal life. Afterall it happened to my school friends, my family. We’d pray we’d end up in urgent care or the emergency room. That meant we’d live. It was part of a rhythm we got used to. We didn’t realize that being surrounded by some of the largest oil fields in the country was a direct contributor to what was happening to us. The toxins that come off of the wells and all of the industrial activity that happens around these wells—the pumps, the diesel engines, the trucks— combine together brewing a life-threatening chemical mix. The drivers would line up their rigs a block from me to get breakfast, leaving their trucks idling, while they got biscuits and gravy before going out to the fields. It never occurred to me that those trucks were part of the reason I was ending up in the hospital and unable to breathe every spring.

This led to my fight, not just as a Sacramento City elected official, but as an advocate in the state capitol for setbacks. I was lucky to leave when I did before the health impacts got more severe.

I’ll never forget going back home, to be part of a tour we gave with Wade Crawford, the Secretary for the Natural Resources Agency. We took a bus, with residents to a school site where an oil well stood right outside of the playground fence. Some mothers, of the school children, had been trying to get a meeting for the past eight years with the administration, but never once had someone come out to see the situation for themselves. Now it was happening.  I remember listening and watching them talk to Wade. There wasn’t a dry eye when we got back on the bus. They talked about how their kids were scared to go to bed because their friends had died in the night. They were terrified of getting sick. They said their children would see their friends go home one day, but never come back. Imagine children worried about falling to sleep because they might not wake up.

Wade is a father of young children. He must have thought about his kids, while listening to those mothers. Why should any parent in California have to live in fear for their child’s health and safety?  California has so much power, we could make it stop tomorrow, if we decided to be bold. While their stories were heartbreaking, I also find strength in the fact that these women, after eight years, were still showing up and standing up saying they wouldn’t stop talking about this. That kind of fire which burns in someone can’t be extinguished. I know, they won’t stop until they get there. Neither will I.

Since our tour, more and more kids have gotten sick, and are having trouble paying attention in school. The community has been sounding the alarm on this issue for a decade, and now the research substantiates what they witnessed. There is irrefutable evidence that pregnant women, that children and that elderly are getting higher rates of cancer, dying younger, and have learning disabilities. There is research being done right now that is showing health impacts as much as two kilometers away from a well.

Kern County workers get sick too, but there are no other jobs available. We know oil is going away eventually. We need a just transition to ensure that workers and families don’t get hurt in that process. First, we need setbacks to protect children and their families.

Approximately 5.4 million people live within half a mile of an oil or gas well.  Nearly 8,500 active California oil and gas wells are located within 2,500 feet of homes, schools, and hospitals, disproportionately impacting people of color and economically hard hit communities.

We can’t call ourselves a climate leader in California if we don’t address something as basic as whether or not a child deserves to go to sleep in a room that doesn’t have a well expelling toxic chemicals outside of their bedroom window. Governor Newsom has the power to act today, if he wanted to. We shouldn’t have to keep fighting this at the local, county, and legislature levels when it’s something so urgent and obvious. I am still optimistic that this administration wants to do the right thing. The governor should immediately issue an executive order establishing setbacks of 2,500 for all oil and gas wells.