Why you should care

Because Nalleli Cobo’s generation is leading the way on a host of issues.

In a year when teenagers are changing the gun debate and stoking the fire of grass-roots democracy, a 17-year-old activist is not uncommon. But, with all due respect to the newcomers, Nalleli Cobo has been challenging the oil industry since age 9.

The veteran environmental activist — who reminds us of the disproportionate impact of drilling and hydraulic fracturing on low-income communities and people of color — is facing a new threat in her fight for the landscape of South Los Angeles. It was 2010 when she first noticed health problems ultimately attributed to airborne chemicals from an oil-drilling facility in her neighborhood. Cobo’s symptoms included chronic nosebleeds, severe stomach cramps, frequent headaches and heart palpitations. Not long after, she developed asthma. And she wasn’t alone. Neighbors had similar symptoms.

What maintains us are people like Nalleli — the young people with fire in their bellies.

Martha Dina Argüello, Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles

With her mother at her side, Cobo began community organizing, protesting and knocking on doors to enlist neighborhood support, ultimately gaining the attention of prominent community leaders and then-U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. After three years of disruption, Cobo and her community tribe won a temporary triumph against the urban oil drill operated by AllenCo Energy, situated directly across from the affordable-housing apartment she shared with her mother, sister, grandmother and great-grandmother.

AllenCo, which bought the production facility in 2009, voluntarily shut it down in late 2013 after the Environmental Protection Agency determined leaks and dated equipment contributed to hazardous airborne toxins, which were making neighborhood residents sick. The energy company spent more than $2 million on fixes and penalties, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The shutdown wasn’t meant to be permanent, and Cobo and community leaders say they’ve heard rumors the facility may soon resume drilling. “This is an ongoing community struggle,” Cobo says. “None of this happens overnight.”

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As a child Nalleli Cobo, now 17, developed asthma and other respiratory issues, which will likely be lifelong conditions, as a result of toxic chemicals released by an oil drilling facility across from the affordable-housing apartment she shared with her family in South Los Angeles.

Even with boosts from people like Hollywood actor/activist Mark Ruffalo, these fights are a slog of community meetings, complicated regulations and well-funded opposition. Martha Dina Argüello, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility–Los Angeles, who was instrumental in pinpointing why people in Cobo’s neighborhood were getting sick, says a shutdown is only the beginning. “This is going to take 30 years … hopefully not quite that long, but it’s certainly possible,” Argüello says, adding that even a permanent shutdown means finding the money to clean up the site. “What maintains us are people like Nalleli — the young people with fire in their bellies,” she says. “That’s where the hope is.”

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Cobo and her mother, Monic Uriate.

Now finishing her junior year in high school — with the typical teenage obsessions of Snapchat, dance lessons and makeup — Cobo says she’s in it for the long game. “The bottom line is that oil wells have no place next to schools, churches and residential dwellings,” she says. “My hope is that one day my children or grandchildren will say, ‘That’s crazy. They had oil wells next to homes?’”

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Cobo in front of the oil drilling site, owned by AllenCo Energy. There are rumors the site is planning to reopen after repairs are made.

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