Tag Archives: California Division of Oil

Wastewater conspiracy allegations – Governor, Chevron sued

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

Lawsuit: Conspiracy by Gov. Brown, oil companies tainted aquifers

By David R. Baker, June 3, 2015 4:35pm
Kern County farmer Mike Hopkins says he lost a cherry orchard to oil-industry wastewater contamination. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

Kern County farmer Mike Hopkins says he lost a cherry orchard to oil-industry wastewater contamination. Photo: Leah Millis, The Chronicle

A conspiracy involving Gov. Jerry Brown, state regulators, Chevron Corp. and the oil industry let petroleum companies inject their wastewater into California aquifers despite the devastating drought, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges.

Gov. Jerry Brown is accused of firing California’s top oil regulator after she started subjecting some of the oil companies’ operations to greater scrutiny. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

Gov. Jerry Brown is accused of firing California’s top oil regulator after she started subjecting some of the oil companies’ operations to greater scrutiny. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, Associated Press

The suit claims that Brown in 2011 fired California’s top oil regulator under pressure from the industry after she started subjecting some of the oil companies’ operations to greater scrutiny, particularly requests to dispose of oil field wastewater underground. Brown then replaced her with someone who promised to be more “flexible” with the oil companies, according to the complaint.

Federal officials have since determined that oil companies have injected billions of gallons of their wastewater into aquifers that should have been protected by law, aquifers that could be used for drinking or irrigation. California regulators have now pledged to end the practice, although some of the injection wells may be allowed to keep pumping until 2017.

“California is experiencing the greatest drought of this generation, and protecting fresh water is of paramount concern,” said R. Rex Parris, lead attorney representing Central Valley farmers on the suit, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

California’s oil reservoirs contain large amounts of salty water that must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it underground. Oil production companies can’t extract oil without some way of handling the left-over water, also known as “produced water.” The urge to boost California oil production prompted the conspiracy, Parris said.

“The fundamental goal of the … conspiracy was to preserve and expand the ability to inject underground chemicals and toxic waste, thereby expanding their oil production and maximizing profits, including tax revenues,” he said.

The governor’s office declined to comment on the suit Wednesday, as did the state’s oil regulating agency, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The division is named as a defendant in the suit, as are Chevron, Occidental Oil, two oil industry associations and several state and local officials. A Chevron spokesman said protecting water resources is one of the company’s core values.

The suit marks the latest twist in a long-building problem that burst into the open last year when the division abruptly shut down several wells that it feared could be injecting oil-field wastewater into aquifers already used for irrigation or drinking. Since then, the number of injection wells closed by the state has increased to 23. But the division insists it has not yet found any drinking or irrigation wells that have been tainted by the injections.

The lawsuit argues, however, that at least one Central Valley farmer lost an orchard to contamination from the oil industry’s produced water. Mike Hopkins, one of the plaintiffs in the suit, had to tear out 3,500 cherry trees whose leaves kept shriveling up and turning brown. Tests of the water showed unusually high levels of salt and boron. A former wastewater injection well lay across a rural road from his Kern County orchard.

Much of the suit involves a 2011 episode that until this year received little attention outside Sacramento and the Central Valley’s oil fields.

Oil companies and their political allies complained that the division under its supervisor at the time, Elena Miller, had bogged down the process of applying for underground injection permits. In addition to wastewater disposal, California oil companies need the permits to inject steam or water into aging oil fields as a way of flushing out more petroleum.

Miller had held the position since 2009 and was considered an outsider by the industry. According to the suit, Miller insisted that the law required oil companies to submit detailed engineering and geological studies for each proposed injection well before the division could issue a permit.

The industry balked and took its complaints directly to the governor, urging Brown to fire Miller. A few Central Valley politicians had already done the same. Some environmentalists, meanwhile, had criticized Miller for what they considered her hands-off approach to hydraulic fracturing.

Chevron spokesman Kurt Glaubitz said Wednesday that the company had not urged Brown to remove Miller.

In November 2011, Brown removed Miller. She was replaced by Tim Kustic, who according to the suit dropped the requirement that the companies submit the disputed studies before receiving injection permits. Kustic is also named as a defendant in the suit.

 

 

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Hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits found in Kern County

Repost from The Los Angeles Times
Editor: See also LA Times follow-up stories: 2/27/15, Who’s behind the chemical-laden water pits in Kern County? and 2/28/15 Jerry Brown must enforce California’s environmental laws.   

Hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits found in Kern County

By Julie Cart,   2/26/15 10:10PM
Oil wells

Pits containing production water from oil wells in Kern County. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Water officials in Kern County discovered that oil producers have been dumping chemical-laden wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits that are operating without proper permits.

Inspections completed this week by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board revealed the existence of more than 300 previously unidentified waste sites. The water board’s review found that more than one-third of the region’s active disposal pits are operating without permission.

The pits raise new water quality concerns in a region where agricultural fields sit side by side with oil fields and where California’s ongoing drought has made protecting groundwater supplies paramount.

Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the water board’s Fresno office, called the unregulated pits a “significant problem” and said the agency expects to issue as many as 200 enforcement orders.

State regulators face federal scrutiny for what critics say has been decades of lax oversight of the oil and gas industry and fracking operations in particular. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has admitted that for years it allowed companies to inject fracking wastewater into protected groundwater aquifers, a problem they attributed to a history of chaotic record-keeping.

“The state doesn’t seem to be willing to put the protection of groundwater and water quality ahead of the oil industry being able to do business as usual,” said Andrew Grinberg of the group Clean Water Action.

The pits — long, shallow troughs gouged out of dirt — hold water that is produced from fracking and other oil drilling operations. The water forced out of the ground during oil operations is heavily saline and often contains benzene and other naturally occurring but toxic compounds.

Regional water officials said they believe that none of the pits in the county have linings that would prevent chemicals from seeping into groundwater beneath them. Some of the pits also lack netting or covers to protect migrating birds or other wildlife.

Currently, linings for pits are not required, though officials said they will consider requiring them in the future. Covers are mandated in some instances.

The pits are a common site on the west side of Bakersfield’s oil patch. In some cases, waste facilities contain 40 or more pits, arranged in neat rows. Kern County accounts for at least 80% of California’s oil production.

The facilities are close to county roads but partially hidden behind earthen berms. At one pit this week, waves of heat rose from newly dumped water, and an acrid, petroleum smell hung in the air.

Rodgers said Thursday that the agency’s review found 933 pits, or sumps, in Kern County. Of those, 578 are active and 355 are not currently used.

Of the active pits, 370 have permits to operate and 208 do not. All of the pits have now been inspected, he said.

The possible existence of hundreds of unpermitted pits came to light when regional water officials compared their list of pit operators to a list compiled by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The oil regulator’s list contained at least 300 more waste pits than water officials had permitted, Rodgers said.

His staff began inspecting the wastewater sites in April. Initial testing of water wells has not revealed any tainted water, he said.

The pits are an inexpensive disposal method for an enormous volume of water that is forced out of the ground during drilling or other operations, such as fracking. Rodgers said that just one field, the McKittrick Oil Field, produces 110,000 barrels of wastewater a day. According to figures from 2013, oil operations in Kern County produce 80 billion gallons of such wastewater — an amount that if clean would supply nearly a half-million households for a year.

More than 2,000 pits have been dredged over decades of oil operations in Kern County, according to water board records. Oil field companies have not always properly disposed of water, Rodgers said. As recently as the 1980s, it was customary to dump wastewater into drainage canals that line the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural fields.

But using unlined pits to dispose of wastewater is becoming less common. Some states ban the practice, and many in the oil and gas industry do not consider it effective.

The water board’s long-term plan to address the problem includes requiring remediation of some abandoned pits so that contaminants left behind don’t pollute the air, Rodgers said.

In pits located near clean water sources, Rodgers said, operators will be required to install monitor wells to test water quality. The companies will pay for the testing and provide the results to water officials.

The water board will publish a series of general orders that he said will more tightly control the operation of wastewater pits.

“Our goal is to protect water quality,” Rodgers said. “Our goal is not to shut anybody down, but by the same token, they do not own the waters beneath them. Those waters are for the public good.”

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