Nalleli Cobo: How a nine-year-old fought an oil company and won


By Patricia Sulbarán Lovera BBC Mundo, Los Angeles

When a Latino community in Los Angeles began their fight against an oil company they claimed was polluting their neighbourhood, a young woman played a central role.

Nalleli Cobo was nine years old when she started suffering from asthma, nosebleeds and headaches.

It was the beginning of a battle against an active oil well site located in front of her house in South Los Angeles.

Nalleli and her mother soon found out that some of their neighbours were also getting sick.

The community, mostly composed of low-income families, protested until the site was temporarily shut down.

Cobo didn’t stop there. Joined by a group of young activists and organisations, they sued the city to demand more regulations in oil extraction. And they won.

A criminal case against the company, Allenco, and its handling of the site, resumes later this month. They declined to comment for this story but have previously stated that they invested capital to comply with regulations.

She has been compared to Greta Thunberg, although her name has been recognised locally for over a decade.

Cobo paused her activism activities in early 2020 after being diagnosed with cancer at the age of 19.

Her doctors don’t know what caused her illness.

After three surgeries and medical treatment, she has recently been declared cancer-free.

This is her story.

I grew up in University Park, in South Central Los Angeles, 30ft across the street from an oil well owned by AllenCo from 2009.

I lived with my mom, my three siblings, my grandma, my great grandpa, my great grandma all in one apartment. We were eight people, including me.

My mom is from Mexico and my dad is from Colombia. He was deported when I was two years old and my mom raised me.

It was the year 2010 and I was nine years old. All of the sudden I started having stomach pains, nausea.

I got body spasms so severe I couldn’t walk, my mom would have to carry me because I would freeze up like a vegetable.

I got nosebleeds so severe that I would have to sleep sitting down so I wouldn’t choke on my own blood at night.

I was being poisoned in my home by a silent killer.

It was crazy to notice not just how my health was affected but everybody else’s in different ways.

My mother got asthma at 40 which is really rare, my grandma got it at 70 which is even more rare. My sister had fibroid problems, my brother had asthma, everybody had some kind of health issue.

But it wasn’t just my family, it was most of our community.

Moms started talking to each other and the word spread that there was there was something wrong.

We could smell it in the air. It smelled like rotten eggs and once it got into your house it wouldn’t go away, even if you close the windows, turned on fans and put air purifiers in the traverses of the windows.

Other times it would smell like guava or chocolate. These were artificial smells.

At the beginning, we started looking into if it was a leak in the building until we found a group of toxicologists to come speak to our community.

They explained that certain chemicals are used for oil extraction and emissions can harm human health if exposed for a long time.

That is when we made the connection with the oil well across the street.

So we started organizing in the community and created the campaign People Not Pozos (“pozos” means oil wells in Spanish).

We filed complaints with the South Coast Air Quality Management District and we knocked on doors asking people if they’d be willing to share their stories at a City Hall hearing.

It was so powerful to know that this community, the Spanish-speaking, black and brown immigrant community that nobody cared about was coming over to the City Hall to make our voices heard.

They would ask me if I could share my story and I would use my little note cards and talk.

I was always super shy but I always felt comfortable doing public speaking.

The Los Angeles Times wrote a story about us and it captured the attention of former US California Senator Barbara Boxer.

At the press conference, Boxer brought investigators from the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) and they went in to do a check up.

They were in there for a few minutes because they started getting sick from the smells.

(After local and federal investigations, AllenCo agreed to shut down the site temporarily).

(The city of Los Angeles sued the company and in 2016 secured a court order that requires AllenCo to follow stringent regulations if it wants to resume drilling).

We were happy when this was announced but it took time. We started organizing in 2010 and it shut down in 2013.

And now we want it to shut down permanently.

When we started campaigning, we noticed that we weren’t the only community being affected.

There are 580,000 angelenos that live within a quarter of a mile or less to an active oil and gas well.

Most are low-income communities of colour.

Whenever I go somewhere to talk about this and I say I’m from Los Angeles, people are like: “Oh! That’s awesome, the Walk of Fame, Hollywood, celebrities…”

Well, LA is home to the largest urban oil field in the country and we don’t talk about it.

I am one of the cofounders of South Central Youth Leadership Coalition and along with other organisations we sued the city of Los Angeles in 2015 for a violation of the California Environmental Quality Act.

We won, and that means that when opening or expanding wells there is a new application process.

Even though I moved out of University Park, I’m campaigning to set up a 2,500 feet health and safety buffer zone between oil wells and schools, hospitals and parks.

At the same time, I am a normal kid. I am obsessed with makeup, I am a dancer, I love travelling and I am in college.

The only thing that makes me different is that I found my passion much earlier.

I was diagnosed with cancer on January 15 of 2020.

For a while I kept it quiet because it was such a scary word to process. The “C word” is something you never expect to hear at such a young age.

My mom and I were also worried about medical bills because I had to undergo surgery.

But we were fortunate enough to reach our goal through a crowd funding campaign.

Physically and emotionally the hardest thing was getting a radical hysterectomy. It took me 6 weeks to get out of bed.

My mom had to bathe me for six months and I had to take dozens of pills.

My oncologist still doesn’t know why I got cancer; they have been able to know by doing tests that it is not genetic.

I told them where I had grown up and asked if there was an environmental test I could take.

She said that, until we have new science, I am just a question mark.

I am recently cancer-free as of 18 January and feel really happy and excited about that.

I want to pursue my career as a civil rights attorney and go into politics afterwards.

My definition of environmental justice is the ability to breathe clean air despite my age, my gender, my ethnicity, social economic status or zip code.

It is fighting, it is protecting my community, my home.

A post shared by @nallelicobo

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