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Story Publication logo March 7, 2023

‘Gold in the Hills, but Not for Us’

Environmental justice activist Nalleli Cobo stands at the gates of the now-shuttered Los Angeles AllenCo Energy site, holding a photo of herself as a child

Primarily Black and brown neighborhoods have long borne the brunt of the oil infrastructure’s health...


Scenes from California’s backyard petroculture.

Photography by Tara Pixley is supported by the Eyewitness Photojournalism Grant by Diversify Photo and the Pulitzer Center.

Poems by Vickie Vértiz.

Since 2020, Tara Pixley has been photographing the community impacts of oil drilling and refining in Los Angeles County and Kern County in Southern California. Predominantly Black and brown neighborhoods, like Inglewood and Wilmington, have long borne the brunt of oil infrastructure’s health and environmental impacts.

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(Top) In the tony suburban enclave of Long Beach, oil derricks are nestled among million-dollar homes. (Bottom left) In Signal Hill Park’s scenic hilltop location, which overlooks Long Beach’s busy port, visitors picnic, play and lounge near active oil wells. (Bottom right) Zoe Sanchez plays at the Garden in the Sun playground in Arvin, a few hundred feet from an active oil well. Images by Tara Pixley/High Country News. United States.

Diamond in the Back

Resplendent plastic snacks bags and arboles
La luz que cae entre las ramas
The pump jack mete y saca la cabeza en la tierra. Escarba
Pass the jugo de naranja. The little ones have sticky fingers, Cheeto-red
Number 9. ¿Qué cae entre las ramas y hojas?

We got this place all to ourselves. Gold in the hills, but not for us
Eighteen rounds of slide slide slippity slide till we’re out of breath
The slide is the pink of a frothy quinceanera dress

Thankful for chitlins and chicharrones. Duros. You may not have,
A car at all 

Las hojas del eucalipto
The pump jack is hungry too, but its panza is full of gas
Baby hands reach for a fried wheat duro. Later their bellies will ache
But we’ll think it’s the chile. Blame it on the fried delicious culture
Tourists don’t come to this park. Not enough hashtags
They’re at the Observatory looking down on LA, on everybody
The palm trees aren’t from here and neither are you

We are pastoral, playing soccer and playing The Spinners
The pepper trees are sacred. Branches for ceremony
The whole lot of us sitting in the park, waiting for youuuuuuuu

We’ve got biscuits and ribs. Tortillas, Tang, and Tajin for the fruit
Chili is acid and lemon is a panza bomb if you eat it long enough
Oil pools on the pan when you cook

Far away, on the walk of fame, gold and black etch in stone
We’re still at the park struggling with our babies.
One day, though
A bare Crape Myrtle will bloom
Baby girl frosting pink. For you. Cruisin’
On a Sunday. After. Noon

In Los Angeles, Kenneth Hahn Park’s 401 acres of green space abuts the largest urban oil field in the country. Picnic benches, flowing brooks, playgrounds, soccer fields and other recreational spaces designed for both locals and tourists are situated in the shadow of dozens of working oil pumps. Image by Tara Pixley/High Country News. United States.

(Top left) Environmental justice activist Nalleli Cobo stands at the gates of the now-shuttered Los Angeles AllenCo Energy site, holding a photo of herself as a child. Growing up in an apartment across from the oil extraction facility, Cobo experienced such debilitating nosebleeds that she had to sleep sitting up. At 19, she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that decimated her reproductive organs. (Top right) Jose Mirales has lived in Kern County most of his life and raised four daughters in Lamont, a rural suburb of Bakersfield. When Mirales had a stroke and began daily liver dialysis a few years ago, he began to worry about how Kern County’s undrinkable water and visibly toxic air would impact his ongoing health issues. (Bottom left) Culver City’s first Black mayor, Dr. Daniel Lee, was a key proponent of a 2021 Culver City Council ordinance that will phase out oil production within city limits. (Bottom right) For years, Magali Sanchez-Hall has fought the environmental racism experienced by the working-class people of Wilmington. Images by Tara Pixley/High Country News. United States.

What We Do Every Day is Activism

At 11 years old, I wanted to be on the escalator
Holding Justin Bieber’s hand, holding my breath. Fresh
From a dance-off in the bowling alley
Under red laser lights in my lip gloss

I should have been warned. I should have been worried
About my cursive. Instead I held my breath, carried
By my mother from room to room, I was so weak

At 10 years old I was worried about explosions
Like tree roots, oil wells are connected underground
To other wells. If one explodes, they all go
Oil companies have strung many generations of cancer
Here. Birth defects. Asthma. Petróleo fire dots raining from the sky

Mr. President, 580,000 people in Los Angeles live near active oil wells
1 in 3 families in Wilmington have experienced cancer
How do we end environmental racism?
Stop urban oil extraction. Why haven’t you done that?

Everything my neighborhood does is activism
Frontline ballads blare from Toyotas, Fords, going to work
When we’re not sick. We hear Bolinas smells real different
They hide the road signs
So they can’t be found. A phantom beach town
White privilege is a disappearing act

Carbon neutral politicians and 2045 is so far away
AllenCo borders nine schools, an infant
Daycare center. A senior housing facility
Nowhere to go because the rent’s too damn high
It’s been too damn high. The line keeps moving
But the check stays the same

Man, fuck this place, and by place I mean
The land lords. The mayor who’s mad that poor people
Will suffer once the oil leaves town. It left us a long
Time ago. In Kern the pollution is everywhere
You can smell it, it dries out
Your eyes and your throat

And we continue
Walking to the corner store. To the arroyo to see the willows
Bend. To the saúco negro for healing colds and coughs
Filling piñatas with purple paletas and happy
Meal toys, the good kind
Our kids climbing up the Coastal Live Oaks
Opening the bags of chips, pizza boxes
Lighting the birthday candles
So many of us in the park, we become the Black Walnut grove
Our ears dangle with beaded leaves, hojas y brazos
Our roots connected underground. Our necks adorned
with turquoise and tiger eye. Malaquite
Hopeful that change is coming
The young people, they’re leading it
There is no future in oil
There never was

(Top left) In Arvin, oil derricks bob up and down in fields of carrots, grapes and other produce. Kern County is the nation’s number-two producer of agriculture as well as its seventh-largest oil-producing county. (Top right) The Los Angeles Marathon Oil Refinery, the West Coast’s largest oil refinery, borders Carson and Wilmington, two predominantly working-class cities with majority Black and brown populations. Wilmington residents experience asthma, cancer and other health issues at much higher rates than people who do not live in such close proximity to oil infrastructure. (Bottom) Community activist Magali Sanchez-Hall talks about the cancer clusters among her Wilmington neighbors, who also experience unusually high rates of asthma as well as often unexplained nosebleeds and migraines. Wilmington is home to every stage of oil production, Sanchez-Hall said, from drilling and refining to shipping the final product out of the state. Images by Tara Pixley/High Country News. United States.

Here's a Flag in Case You Forgot This Too, Is Stolen

Listen, oil well owner. The church that leases the land the well is on
You operate year-to-year. You net and you are gross
How do these wells not open you?
They open every pore around us. The air left behind a decrepit
Oilfield, like your rotting teeth if only you didn’t have health insurance

At the liquid bottom of debits and credits is a hole
Your fake concern for losing wells belongs in there
A liquid arraignment seeping out of your mouths
So much lip service, those lips must be chappity chapped
Crusty like the rust on discarded pumps, littering the almond groves
Used, used-enough pumpjacks flow mechanically

And here, the equalizer should be death
And life, but they’re not all worth the same amount
Mr. Foundation-for-college-scholarships-that-don’t-pay-for-shit

Without oil, the whole town will close. No books, libraries, or hospitals
Arguments as counterweights, a horse head in the bed
Bridal sucker rod talk. Full of gas
Move over, you leva. The foundation cracked. Gas seeping
Into your Cadillac. Your ranch house and retirement plan

Revenues urge a catastrophic warming. Looming. You peaked in ‘85
But the hairspray is still in the can. Declining. Quietly bobbing.
Kern loves property tax revenue from oil, but it has California’s highest poverty rates
Why are they so poor with so much oil money? Who’s taking home the net.
it’s not me, her face says. Looking off into a distant future something
Too far away.

Mayors are mad because they’re shutting down the wells
Fool, you are mad at the wrong thing. The real bad guy is the MF wage gap
White sheets and eye holes at the conference table. Redlining
The gender pay gap.

Every last drop we can get. Later is too late, Kern. Shafter
Pump jacks clink. One day, you and your pipes
Will lie, will lay, will rot in groves of yellow grass
Join the gray sky you left behind

Signal Hill is a wealthy outlier amid Southern California’s oil extraction and production sites, which are more commonly situated in working-class Black and brown neighborhoods. Image by Tara Pixley/High Country News. United States.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change
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Health Inequities

Health Inequities
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Racial Justice

Racial Justice
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Extractive Industries

Extractive Industries

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