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Environment & Climate

Meet the young environmental activist in Los Angeles taking on oil companies

Hollywood actor Mark Ruffalo calls 15-year-old Nalleli Cobo a “superhero”
12 Ago 2016 – 05:13 PM EDT
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Nalleli Cobo Crédito: People Not Pozos

Many of Nalleli Cobo’s recent memories are of being sick. Beginning in 2010, at just nine-years-old, she had constant nosebleeds and headaches. At her school, in University Park, in South Los Angeles, she’d often go to the nurse, complaining of stomach pain. She developed asthma and heart palpitations. And she wasn’t the only one.

“I was sick just like the other kids in my neighborhood,” Cobo says. “My nose was always bleeding and my mom was nauseous and had migraines.”

From 2010 to 2014, Cobo lived near a large oil well, owned by the oil company AllenCo. Located just two blocks from her school, it was one of the thousands of urban oil and gas drilling sites located in and around Los Angeles. Most are located in low-income, Hispanic neighborhoods.

But Cobo didn’t sit inside and complain. Instead, she joined community efforts to fight against the well. She passed out flyers, educated her neighbors and advocated publicly against the oil operation.

In 2013, largely thanks to community efforts, the well was closed. And in June, a public nuisance lawsuit filed by the City of Los Angeles against the company was settled, ruling that AllenCo could not pump oil again until it meets all federal, state and local environmental rules.

But Cobo and her mother Monic Uriarte, who works for the social services organization Esperanza Community Housing, say the settlement doesn’t go far enough. They continue to take part in local community efforts to make the closure permanent. For her activism, Cobo’s become known around the country.

"Unity is strength, and our effort can weaken the enemy, no matter how rich and powerful it is,” Cobo told Univision. “We must tell AllenCo that wells and residents cannot coexist.”

AllenCo bought the oil production facility, located between nine schools and day-care centers, in 2009. The neighborhood complaints began that same year, Cobo says. The smells were horrible. And Cobo and many of her neighbors began to complain of serious headaches, scratchy throats, nausea and bloody noses.

“No parent should be scared that their child may die while they sleep, by choking on their own blood,” Uriarte says.

Residents of the low-income neighborhood couldn’t afford to pick up and move. And that’s when Cobo and her family joined a community effort to shut down the wells. The grassroots team organized community meetings to share stories and concerns. That led to the creation of the People Not Pozos (People Not Oil Wells) program.

"Nalleli has been involved in this fight since she was little,” Uriarte says. “She lived the consequences of pollution and she realized that it was unfair. My daughter knows how to speak out and is not afraid to fight for the welfare of our community.”

Complaints led to state and federal investigations, during which authorities found that AllenCo was in violation of the General Duty Clause of the Clean Air Act, and that the well did not meet standards of industrial practices.

In November 2013, under pressure from U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, the well was shut down. The following January, Los Angeles City Attorney Mike Feuer filed a lawsuit to prevent AllenCo from reopening until it complies with health and safety regulations. The company agreed to spend about $700,000 to make improvements.

“The temporary success we had to close AllenCo is a very good example of how residents can come together to fight injustice,” says Sandy Navarro, People Not Pozos coordinator. “As a Latina, I am very proud of us to create a difference and be leaders of this effort.”

But Cobo and her neighbors say the shutdown must be permanent. She says her health, and that of her neighbors, improved as soon as the well was shut down.

Two years ago, she sent a video to the Pope asking for help in closing the well. But not for religious reasons; the well is located on land owned by the archdiocese of Los Angeles.

“Our community has been able to get this well temporarily shut down,” she said in the video. “But everyday I’m worried that they will reopen and that we’ll be exposed to the toxic emissions.”

She never received a response from the Catholic church.

“Many Hispanics are afraid to say something because of their immigration status, language or economic resources,” Uriarte says. “But we can all come together to seek justice. Everyone has the right to breathe clean air.”

In 2014, the family moved away from the well. But Cobo has remained involved in the fight.

In March, Leonardo DiCaprio mentioned Cobo in a tweet. On a tour of “toxic L.A.” in April, Mark Ruffalo spoke to Cobo, and then called her a “ real superhero” on Twitter. In May, she met Bernie Sanders while he was in town to tour Los Angeles’ urban oil fields.

"We had to change houses because of my health, but I'm still active with this topic because I am afraid they'll reopen the well," Cobo says. "There are still other places in Los Angeles and around the country where this is happening, and we can not let that continue."

Jessica Weiss contributed to this report.