Nalleli Cobo Stands Up Against Big Oil for What is Right


Nalleli is a rising star. At 17 years old, she’s already been working on a single issue for nearly a decade.

What could possibly be important enough to inspire a 9-year-old to become an activist and stick with it for so long?

Clean air.

You see, Nalleli grew up in South LA and had an oil well for a neighbor. The toxic chemicals and fumes from the drilling made her chronically sick – for three years. She had frequent headaches, nosebleeds, stomach pains, asthma, body spasms to the point where she couldn’t walk, and even heart palpitations requiring her to wear a heart monitor for months.

9 year old Nalleli Cobo with heart monitor from illness due to living next to oil well

I could feel Nalleli’s passion emerge from her otherwise soft-spoken demeanor when I asked what motivates her to keep going.

“I do this because I believe everyone has the right to breathe clean air. Clean air is a basic human right that shouldn’t be denied by gender, race, or socioeconomic status. It’s 2018 and we have all these things and amazing technology, but we’re not recognizing that we’re still not breathing clean air. If we’re going to better ourselves as a country, we need to talk about what we need to do and what we can do now.”

“I do this because nobody should have to have an oil well as a neighbor. So no other kid will have to go through what I had to. To go through an MRI at age nine and know all these cardiologists and doctors by name because of the constant checkups – nobody should have to have that, you know? All because they didn’t have clean air.”

So what did she do with all this passion, persistence, and determination?

Nalleli and her community (many of whom were also sick) started organizing. With the help of Esperanza Community Housing, they created a group called “People not Pozos” (pozos means wells). They raised awareness of the issue by going door to door, constantly reported the foul smell of the gas and chemicals to officials, showed up to town halls and city hall to share their story, and reached out to the media. Nalleli was the youngest of the group and often spoke at these events thanks to her passion and courage. Their efforts multiplied after a toxicologist confirmed their air was poisonous.

After three years their hard work paid off. The LA Times picked up the story and it was noticed by former Senator Barbara Boxer. The Allenco Energy facility was then investigated, shut down, and fined. The EPA inspector got sick after being on the site for five minutes.

The drilling site has been shut down for almost 5 years and the community’s health has rebounded. They’re not out of the woods yet though as it may re-open at some point.

Despite her overwhelming schedule full of dance practices before school, homework, and college apps, Nalleli still sees activism as her full-time job. Her focus these days is on two things:

  1. Shutting down that same oil well for good in her community (made up mostly of affordable housing, schools, and day-care by the way).
  2. Getting a buffer zone ordinance passed with STAND LA, so there is a minimum distance of 2,500 feet between urban wells and areas where people live, work, and worship. Getting this passed would shut down 86% of oil wells in LA.

Nalleli Cobo speaks outside Governor Jerry Brown's office


Take Sustainable Action

I asked Nalleli a couple more questions that fit in nicely here.

How can people in and out of your community help?

“Show up. We definitely need people to come and have signs and bring their passion for justice. We can’t make a change unless people are standing there with us. It can’t just be one person. And for those outside of the community – just listen to frontline communities. Talk to someone and hear their story. Listen to what they live through every day so you understand.”

I also asked Nalleli the following question which I am starting to ask sustainability leaders everywhere and plan on compiling – I’ll let you know when it’s ready (let me know if you have leaders I should include).

What is the most effective thing someone can do to help reverse climate change?

“To educate themselves. You can’t make change without being educated on the matter. We need to step back and learn why we’re doing this. What’s the best route to take? How are people affected by this? Learning allows you to ask the right questions. You can make a change and it’s a lot more effective when you know the topic.”

“We, as a community, need to educate ourselves on the issue we face. My community has to learn about fracking, gravel packing, what chemicals are used, health effects…and it’s because of our broken regulatory system that we have to do that. I had to do this while trying to pass 5th grade, 6th grade…it’s not our job. It’s their job.”

So, I’d boil it down to a few things:

  • Show up.
  • Educate yourself on the issues. (reading this counts!)
  • Vote for people who will act on climate change and fix these unacceptable issues frontline communities are dealing with…so 5th graders don’t have to.
Read other content from the “Highlighting Someone Awesome” section or see all sections of the What on EARTH?! sustainability newsletter.

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