• Wed. Jun 29th, 2022

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Young L.A. Latina wins prestigious environmental prize

At age 9, Nalleli Cobo was experiencing asthma, body spasms, heart palpitations and nosebleeds so severe she needed to sleep in a chair to prevent herself from choking on her own blood.

Across the street from her family’s apartment in University Park in South Central Los Angeles was an oil extraction site owned by Allenco Energy that was spewing fumes into the air and the community around her.

After speaking with neighbors facing similar symptoms, she and her family began to mobilize with their community, suspecting that was making them sick. They created the People Not Pozos (People Not Oil Wells) campaign. At 9 years old, Cobo was designated the campaign’s spokesperson, marking the start of her activism and organizing career.

Image: Nalleli Cobo holds the Ouroboros.
Nalleli Cobo holds the ouroboros.Tamara Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize

In March 2020, Cobo, the co-founder of the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition, helped lead the group to permanently shut down the Allenco Energy oil drilling site that she and others in the community said caused serious health issues for them. She also helped convince the Los Angeles City Council and Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors to unanimously vote to ban new oil exploration and phase out existing sites in Los Angeles.

After pressure from the community and scrutiny from elected officials, Allenco Energy agreed to suspend operations in 2013. The site was permanently shut down in 2020, and the company was charged in connection with state and local environmental health and safety regulations. There are ongoing issues around cleaning and plugging up the oil wells. 

Cobo co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition in 2015 to bolster efforts against oil sites and work toward phasing them out across the city.

That year, the youth group sued the city of Los Angeles, alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental racism. The suit was settled after the city implemented new drilling application requirements.

Cobo, now 21, was recognized Wednesday for the environmental justice work that has spanned more than half her life. She received the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, which is awarded annually to individuals from six regions: Europe, Asia, Africa, Islands and Island Nations, North America, and South and Central America.

“I did not want to answer the phone because it was an unknown number,” Cobo, who was getting bubble tea when she received the call about the prize, told NBC News in a Zoom interview Wednesday. “I didn’t even know I was nominated. I started crying.”

During the 1920s, Los Angeles was one of the world’s largest urban oil-exporting regions. More than 20,000 active, idle or abandoned oil wells still reside in the county, and about one-third of residents live less than a mile from an active oil site.

Studies have shown that living near oil and gas wells increases exposure to air pollution, with nearby communities facing  environmental and health risks including preterm birth, asthma and heart disease.

Oil wells in Los Angeles.
Oil wells in Los Angeles.Leigh Photography for the Goldman Environmental Prize

“My community led the front lines of ending oil extraction in Los Angeles, and from there on out, it’s going to be a domino effect with California and the rest of the states,” Cobo said.

Growing up as an activist came with its own set of challenges, Cobo said, especially regarding her age.

“I’ve faced a lot of comments about, like, ‘You’re only 9; you don’t know what you’re talking about,’ or, ‘You should be in school, sweetie,’ or, ‘Leave this to the grown-ups,’” Cobo said. “They are right. I should be in school. I want to be in school, but it’s terrifying as you’re growing up to know that you don’t have a guaranteed future.”

Pushing for visibility, action

Cobo said she and her community felt invisible for several years as they struggled to gain support.

“It felt like we were hamsters on a running wheel. … I felt like I was just screaming to a wall, like, ‘Help us. Listen to us. We’re being poisoned,’ and it felt like nobody cared,” Cobo said.

The community’s activism paid off. Then-U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., flew to Los Angeles, held a news conference in front of Cobo’s apartment building and asked Allenco Energy to suspend operations, which it agreed to do in 2013. Before that, Environmental Protection Agency officials who had toured the site reported that they had been sickened by fumes.

Cobo co-founded the South Central Youth Leadership Coalition in 2015 to bolster efforts against oil sites and work toward phasing them out across the city.

That year, the youth group sued the city of Los Angeles, alleging violations of the California Environmental Quality Act and environmental racism. The suit was settled after the city implemented new drilling application requirements.

“I was 14 when we sued them. And it was us taking our voice back. Us taking our power. Us saying, ‘Yeah, we’re high schoolers, we’re 14 to 18 years old, but we deserve to be heard,'” Cobo said.

In 2020, Cobo’s leadership and activism helped achieve preliminary City Council votes to ban oil extraction in the city.

She credited activism with teaching her how to use her voice and how to be a leader.

“​​I fight because I don’t want any other child to have the childhood I did,” Cobo said. “I fight so urban oil drilling is read about in history books, and I will continue fighting until every youth is guaranteed a livable future.”

“If you see an injustice, or if you see something wrong, you have the power to change it,” Cobo said. “And that’s something I never realized.”

“The Goldman Prize is giving not only me but my community the ability to share our stories and our struggles on an international scale, which is something we’ve been trying to do for years,” she said.

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