With explicit permission from state regulators, drought-ravaged California let oil companies taint drinkable water in Central Valley
Oil companies in drought-ravaged California have, for years, pumped wastewater from their operations into aquifers that had been clean enough for people to drink.
They did it with explicit permission from state regulators, who were supposed to protect the increasingly strained groundwater supplies from contamination.
Instead, the state allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation, according to data reviewed by The Chronicle. Hundreds more inject a blend of briny water, hydrocarbons and trace chemicals into lower-quality aquifers that could be used with more intense treatment.
Most of the waste-injection wells lie in California’s parched Central Valley, whose desperate residents are pumping so much groundwater to cope with the historic drought that the land has started to sink.
“It is an unfolding catastrophe, and it’s essential that all oil and gas wastewater injection into underground drinking water stop immediately,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.
The problem developed over decades, starting with a bureaucratic snafu between state and federal regulators. It was made worse by shoddy record keeping and, critics say, plain negligence. The issue erupted into public view last summer when state officials abruptly shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County, fearing they could taint groundwater supplies already feeding homes and farms.
So far, tests of nearby drinking-water wells show no contamination, state officials say. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which helped uncover the practice, is threatening to seize control of regulating the waste-injection wells, a job it has left to California officials for over 30 years. The state faces a Feb. 6 deadline to tell the EPA how it plans to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.
“If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional adminstrator for the EPA. “Safe drinking water is only going to become more in demand.”
California produces more oil than any state other than Texas and North Dakota, and its oil fields are awash in salty water. A typical Central Valley oil well pulls up nine or 10 barrels of water for every barrel of petroleum that reaches the surface.
In addition, companies often flood oil reservoirs with steam to coax out the valley’s thick, viscous crude, which is far heavier than petroleum found in most other states. They pump high-pressure water and chemicals underground to crack rocks in the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing. They use acid and water to clear up debris that would otherwise clog their oil-producing wells.
All of that leftover water, laced with bits of oil and other chemicals, has to go somewhere. Pumping the liquid — known in the industry as produced water — back underground is considered one of the most environmentally responsible ways to get rid of it.
“If we’re not able to put the water back, there’s no other viable thing to do with it,” said Rock Zierman, chief executive officer of the California Independent Petroleum Association, which represents smaller oil companies in the state. “If you were to shut down hundreds of injection wells, obviously that’s a lot of jobs, a lot of tax revenue.”
Farmers fear that the groundwater they increasingly need to nurture their orchards and crops may one day show signs of pollution, even if it hasn’t surfaced yet.
“When I’m concerned for my farm, I’m looking at future generations and reaching a point where they can’t use the groundwater because of things we’re doing today,” said Tom Frantz, 65, a farmer and retired teacher who grows almonds near the town of Shafter (Kern County).
The wastewater injection problem stretches back to 1983.
EPA officials that year signed an agreement giving California’s oil field regulators — the state’s Divison of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — responsibility for enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The agreement listed, by name, aquifers considered exempt, where oil companies could legally inject leftover water with a simple permit from the division. If state regulators wanted to add any aquifers to the list, they would need EPA’s aproval.
But there were two signed copies of the agreement, said Steven Bohlen, the division’s new supervisor. Eleven aquifers listed as exempt on one copy weren’t included on the other. The state and the oil companies considered those aquifers exempt — perfectly suitable places to dispose of wastewater. The EPA didn’t.
“We cannot tell, nor can the EPA, which version is correct,” said Bohlen, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.
The bureaucratic confusion didn’t stop there. In some cases, the state treated entire aquifers as exempt when, in fact, only specific portions of them had been approved for oil industry use. In other instances, the state issued injection permits for aquifers that the EPA had never declared exempt, Blumenfeld said.