In 2006, a 3.1-magnitude earthquake on the San Cayetano Fault damaged a well in the Ojai Oil Field which began spewing a mixture of brine water, oil and other chemicals at the rate of 210 gallons per minute. Summit School, with a population of approximately 80 K-6 students, was within 1,000 feet of the toxic mix.

Because the well casing break was very difficult to get under control, it continued to flow for three months. Finally, after accruing a cost of $4 million, the rupture was stopped.

During the entire time the well was being worked on, no one at the school was notified of the disaster unfolding on the hillside upwind from it. Children continued to play on the playground, teachers taught physical education, parents with babies dropped off and picked up their students. 

Where was the Ventura County Environmental Health Department? Where was the state agency in charge of oil and gas?

After the well was capped and the drill rigs and heavy equipment all cleared out, a parent of children at the school was told of the disaster by an oilfield worker. Teachers, parents and staff were collectively horrified. There was never any follow-up study or even a quick check-in to see how the children of Summit School were doing.

I was an elementary school principal in Ojai Unified School District for 22 years. In my role, among other things, I was responsible for ensuring the health and safety of children assigned to my school. I am also on the board of Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG).

I believe the County of Ventura is not providing enough protections for children in schools near oil production.

The draft Environmental Impact Report for the county’s General Plan Update proposes an increased buffer between schools and homes of 1,500. That is inadequate. Studies show adverse health impacts from oil and gas facilities at distances of at least half a mile. Buffers should be increased from the currently proposed 1,500 feet to 2,500 feet.

The reasoning given for this is to allow a potential operator, who wants to drill an oil well without directional drilling, to place the oil well anywhere on the drill pad.

This stretches common sense. If the future operator can drill horizontally from 1,500 feet away as stated in the draft, why not from 2,500 feet? There is a difference in the cost of drilling, but the risk to the health and safety of young children far outweighs the small economic cost to an operator or two.

Many young children suffer from asthma and skin allergies. All children love to run and play at recess. It is critical that those sensitive children are protected from unwanted and unnecessary exposure to air toxins that may cause serious complications leading to poor school attendance and miserable days of recovery time.

In my last assignment before retiring, I was principal at a school with three classrooms of special needs children, some of whom were medically fragile and who suffered from life-threatening childhood illnesses. This latter group of children were often highly sensitive to changes in their environment and the reactions they suffered were sometimes immediate and very serious.

I remember asking one mother of such a child, “When would you like me to call 911?” Her response was, “Any time you want to.” As chilling as that sounds, it was real.

A setback distance of 2,500 feet, roughly one-third of a mile, is about all we can do to protect the health of young children at a school near active or idle oil and gas activities.

We owe it to them to provide a safe and healthy atmosphere for learning.