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California Water Officials Must Stop Putting Oil Industry Over Water

State regulators have allowed the oil industry to dump waste fluid in unlined pits for decades. Even amid proof that this practice has polluted groundwater, officials continue to grant the industry a pass on cleanup requirements.

Written by Hollin Kretzmann Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Fracking fluid and other drilling wastes are dumped into an unlined pit located along the Petroleum Highway in Kern County, Calif. Nets were installed on these pits to keep birds from dying in the toxic water.Photo by Sarah Craig, Faces of Fracking

Too often, protecting California’s precious groundwater clashes with the interests of the oil industry. Due to its outsized political influence, oil frequently wins out.

Nowhere is that more evident than in the Central Valley, where many oilfield operators are dumping their toxic oil-waste fluid into open, unlined pits.

These pits don’t just produce nasty, eye-watering smells. They also risk contaminating the underlying groundwater with chemicals that make us sick. In fact, in 2015 an independent scientific panel recommended that California phase out the use of these disposal pits, citing their danger to groundwater.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board – an agency tasked with safeguarding the region’s water resources – still allows this dangerous practice.

Worse, the board adopted a rule last year that allows oil companies to continue dumping fracking waste into these pits for as long as three years after the state prohibited this unsafe practice. Inexplicably, the board justified this needless and dangerous grace period by complaining that the practice was too widespread to ask the oil industry to stop.

It’s not the only time the Central Valley water board has bent over backward to accommodate oil and gas companies and put drinking water and agricultural irrigation at risk.

In 2017, the board sided with the oil industry when it declined to take any action against the operator of an unlined pit in Edison that has caused documented groundwater contamination. After allowing the dumping of toxic wastewater for decades, water board staff reported that the wastewater had seeped into the groundwater below.

The staff prepared a cease and desist order in 2015. But for reasons unexplained, the board changed the order to allow the unlawful discharge to continue to January 2018. Then, when we thought the board would finally order the facility to shut down, it instead allowed the operator to keep discharging for another 18 months.

In another case, the board’s own staff have confirmed that a toxic plume beneath a set of pits has polluted multiple sources of groundwater being used for water-supply wells near the Kern County town of Buttonwillow. The pits receive wastewater from the South Belridge oil field, one of the most heavily fracked fields in the state.

The board’s report found that the discharged wastewater contains incredibly hazardous chemicals, including dangerous levels of cancer-causing benzene. The contamination has spread for more than 2 miles underground. Groundwater that had been suitable for municipal and agricultural use is now unsuitable for both. And the true extent of the damage is yet to be determined.

But rather than stop or even reduce the millions of gallons of toxic-laden waste being dumped into the pits each day, the board was content to simply ask for more information, which would take well into next year. Meanwhile, the Central Valley’s groundwater faces more and more degradation each day.

Because of the board’s failure to stop the toxic dumping, my organization sued the board last month. We also petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to step in and order a halt to dumping at these pits unless and until the operator can show the discharges won’t pollute usable groundwater.

In drought-prone California, protecting water resources is of the utmost importance. And in the Central Valley, where agriculture is the heart of the local economy, it’s doubly so.

Water treatment technology is available, and it’s time the board required oil companies to clean their wastewater.

Water boards are supposed to be water protectors, not polluter defenders. Toxic oil-waste pits are wholly incompatible with water safety and conservation, and they must be shut down.

Central Valley residents already suffer from some of the worst fossil fuel pollution in the nation. They deserve a water board that won’t sacrifice any more of their water to the oil industry.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Water Deeply.

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