A Los Angeles teen led a fight to shut down urban oil wells, survived cancer, and won a 'Green Nobel'

·6 min read
activist nalleli cobo stands arms crossed in front of solid gate with private property signs
Nalleli Cobo in front of the closed AllenCo site.Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize
  • Nalleli Cobo has spent half her life fighting to end oil and gas drilling in Los Angeles.

  • Cobo and her neighbors became sick as a nearby oil well site leaked potentially toxic gas into the air.

  • The 21-year-old won a 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize for her successful efforts to stop urban drilling.

When she was 9 years old, Nalleli Cobo got a nosebleed that changed her life.

It was the first of many, soon accompanied by headaches, heart palpitations, stomach pain, spasms, and asthma.

Cobo lived in an apartment in South Los Angeles with three siblings, her great-grandparents, and her mother, who had immigrated there from Mexico. Talking with their neighbors, they learned that many people in the building were experiencing similar health issues. They suspected the oil-drilling site across the street.

"Everyone could smell it," Cobo told Insider.

The oil wells, run by a company called AllenCo, often emitted a nauseating rotten-egg smell. Sometimes the smell seemed masked with artificial scents, filling the neighborhood with the smell of guava or cherries or chocolate.

It turned out the AllenCo site was leaking. Gas from drilling sites can contain harmful substances like particulate matter, benzene, and carbon monoxide. Research has linked proximity to oil and gas wells with higher rates of preterm births, respiratory irritation, cardiovascular disease, and cancer.

black pumpjacks for oil wells beside dense housing in california
Active pumpjacks from oil wells in Culver City, Los Angeles County, California, on March 10, 2022.Bing Guan/Reuters

When Cobo thinks about growing up in that apartment with her family, she said, "It just makes me so warm and fuzzy. But then you would take a step outside and it was an entirely different world."

Her health issues continued for a decade, culminating in a cancer diagnosis when she was 19. She eventually underwent three surgeries, six weeks of radiation, three rounds of chemo, eight minor procedures, and fought off two infections. Because of the pandemic, she went into treatment alone. To save her life, surgeons had to remove her entire reproductive system. She can no longer have children.

From the age of 9, despite her health problems, Cobo organized her neighbors and led a tireless campaign against the wells, resulting in the site's permanent closure and criminal charges against AllenCo executives. Legal disputes between the company and the city are ongoing.

"They chose the wrong community," said Cobo, who is now 21 and has been cancer-free for a year and five months.

The work didn't stop with AllenCo. Los Angeles is home to one of the largest urban oil fields in the country. Roughly 580,000 residents live within a quarter-mile of an active well. Cobo's continued activism added to a chorus of voices from neighborhoods across the city, where residents said wells were making them sick. In January, Los Angeles City Council unanimously voted to ban new oil and gas wells and phase out existing ones over a five-year period.

Cobo's efforts earned her a 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize, known as the "Green Nobel," on Wednesday.

AllenCo did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After-school activism: a 'Hannah Montana' double life

Nalleli Cobo wearing "people not pozos" t shirt leans against desk in office with two women
Left to right: Nalleli Cobo, Nancy Halpern Ibrahim of Esperanza Community Housing, and Cobo's mother, Monic Uriarte, at the offices of the organization Stand Together Against Neighborhood Drilling LA.Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize

Shortly after Cobo and her neighbors began noticing health problems, toxicologists from the organization Physicians for Social Responsibility came to Cobo's building, confirmed the leak from the AllenCo site, and explained the associated health risks.

Horrified, Cobo and her mother began filing complaints to the local air-quality management district. They galvanized their neighbors to speak at city council meetings and hold rallies, where Cobo spoke publicly about her health.

For years, Cobo would return from school and do homework until her mother finished work. Then they would go knock on neighbors' doors to hand out flyers. Sometimes they had a meeting after school or watched documentaries on fracking and drilling.

"It was up to us to become the experts," Cobo said.

Nalleli Cobo and her mother embrace smiling in front of beige wall
Nalleli Cobo, a 2022 Goldman Environmental Prize winner, and her mother, Monic Uriarte.Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize

What she really wanted to watch was the Disney Channel crossover of the TV shows "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody" and "Hannah Montana," where Miley Cyrus plays a California teen who leads a secret double life as a famous pop star.

"It was learning to sacrifice things like that," Cobo said, adding, "it did low-key feel like a little 'Hannah Montana' moment, where it was my activism and being a normal little 9-year-old girl."

Soon, Cobo and her neighbors had organized a group called People Over Pozos (which means "wells" in Spanish). In 2013, several inspectors from the US Environmental Protection Agency became sick after visiting the AllenCo oil wells. The company promptly suspended its operations there.

Cobo and her family moved to a new neighborhood just a few months later. She said her health immediately improved.

"It was like crazy night and day, when I didn't have to use my inhaler 30 times a day anymore, or I could sleep in my own bed again without nosebleeds," she said.

Cobo helped sue the city of Los Angeles and get the wells shut down for good

oil well pumpjacks in shrubby urban lot in los angeles
Oil wells in Los Angeles, California.Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize

The temporary closure wasn't enough for Cobo and her neighbors to feel safe. The site wasn't completely shuttered, and there were still thousands like it across the city.

In 2015, Cobo co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition. The group sued the city of Los Angeles for environmental racism, saying it had disproportionately permitted oil drilling in Latino and Black communities. Cobo remembers rushing from school to file the lawsuit before the courthouse closed for the day.

"I've always put my activism before school or anything. For me, it's a life-and-death situation. It's my community on the line. It's future generations on the line. It's a no-brainer that I have to give my all," she said.

After the city adopted new requirements for oil drilling applications, they reached a settlement in the lawsuit.

Nalleli Cobo holds circular Goldman Environmental Prize with plaque posing in front of home
Nalleli Cobo holds the Goldman Environmental Prize.Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize

Doctors don't know for sure what caused Cobo's cancer. "At first, we thought it was possibly genetic. So we all got tested, even my great-grandma, who was 104. And it wasn't," she said.

In September 2019, inspectors for the California Department of Conservation discovered that gas was still leaking from the AllenCo site, since its wells hadn't been plugged. The following year, the site closed permanently. Cobo bought a cake to celebrate with her family. (A recent report from The Los Angeles Times indicates that the wells still haven't been properly plugged.)

"I think listening to frontline communities is really important," Cobo said, adding, "We're not experts, but we know our communities, we know our stories. And that's why it's important that we work as a team."

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