Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
State conservation chief quits amid tainted aquifer controversyBy David R. Baker, Friday, June 5, 2015 7:07 pm
The head of the California Department of Conservation, Mark Nechodom, abruptly resigned Thursday following an outcry over oil companies injecting their wastewater into Central Valley aquifers that were supposed to be protected by law.
Nechodom, who had led the department for three years, announced his resignation in a brief letter to John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. The Conservation Department is part of the resources agency.
“I have appreciated being part of this team and helping to guide it through a difficult time,” Nechodom wrote.
Nechodom did not give a reason for his departure. But a division of the Conservation Department that regulates oil-field operations has come under intense criticism for letting oil companies inject wastewater into aquifers that could have been used for drinking or irrigation.
A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency said she could not comment on Nechodom’s reasons for leaving, calling it a personnel issue. Jason Marshall, the Conservation Department’s chief deputy director, will lead the department while a permanent replacement is sought.
The department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources for years improperly issued hundreds of wastewater injection permits into aquifers that should have been protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, a problem detailed in a Chronicle investigation in February.
By the division’s most recent count, 452 disposal wells went into aquifers whose water, if treated, could have been used for drinking or irrigation. Another 2,021 wells pumped wastewater or steam into aquifers that also contain oil, with the injections helping to squeeze more petroleum from the ground.
California oil fields typically contain large amounts of water that must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it back underground. But oil companies can inject their “produced water” only into aquifers that have been specifically approved for wastewater storage by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
The division has shut down 23 injection wells deemed to pose the greatest threat and has committed to closing the rest in stages over the next two years. So far, the injections have not been found to have contaminated any wells used for drinking water.
The injections, and the division’s schedule for closing them, have prompted lawsuits, including one filed this week that named Nechodom as a defendant. That suit, filed on behalf of Central Valley farmers, alleges Nechodom, Gov. Jerry Brown and oil companies engaged in a conspiracy to circumvent the law.
Before Brown picked him to lead the Conservation Department, Nechodom had been a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He had also served as a senior climate science policy adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.
Until this year, however, he might have been best known as the husband of former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who completed her term in 2014 after revealing that she was battling severe depression that left her unable to work on many days.