Tag Archives: Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board

SF CHRONICLE: Pits of drilling waste threaten water, air safety, report charges

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle
[Editor: Significant quote: “The report says there are 790 active pits in California and that 60 percent of them have out-of-date permits or no permit at all. Monitoring of the pits, which allow toxic substances in the water to percolate into the ground, is inadequate, and regulations are ineffective, according to the report.”  – RS]

Pits of drilling waste threaten water, air safety, report charges

Dumped oil, gas byproduct hazardous, watchdog says
By Peter Fimrite, March 7, 2016
Traffic moves along the road as pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield in this January 2015 file photo. Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP / AP
Traffic moves along the road as pumpjacks operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield in this January 2015 file photo. Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP / AP

Hundreds of open pits containing toxic waste produced by oil and gas drilling are threatening groundwater in California, and regulators have failed to protect drinking and irrigation water supplies from the danger, an environmental watchdog group concludes in a report set to be released Monday.

Oil industry leaders deny that the pits, which are primarily in the Central Valley, have contaminated any groundwater. But the report by Clean Water Action argues that oversight of the waste is so flimsy that the state should immediately prohibit disposal of wastewater in the evaporation pits.

“The oil and gas industry continues to dump toxic wastewater into open waste pits, and that’s threatening, and potentially polluting, groundwater,” said the report’s author, Andrew Grinberg, the special projects coordinator for Clean Water Action, an Oakland nonprofit.

‘Highest standards’

“It’s appalling that the wealthiest industry in the history of civilization can’t deal with its wastewater in a more responsible way,” he said. “State regulators should prohibit this disposal method.”

The report says there are 790 active pits in California and that 60 percent of them have out-of-date permits or no permit at all. Monitoring of the pits, which allow toxic substances in the water to percolate into the ground, is inadequate, and regulations are ineffective, according to the report.

Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said the report’s findings were “simply false.”

She said water disposal practices are monitored and tested by multiple state and local agencies, including the State Department of Conservation, the State Water Resources Control Board and local water quality boards.

“California’s energy producers operate under the nation’s most rigorous laws and regulations, which ensure transparency, accountability and the highest standards,” Reheis-Boyd said. “We outright reject these allegations and rely upon scientific data and our safety record to demonstrate the safe manner in which we operate every day.”

Disposal of oil and gas drilling wastewater is a big issue in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys, where most of California’s petroleum production takes place. Kern County is the top oil-producing area in the state, but disposal of waste is also a concern in parts of Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties, which have been major oil producers since the early 1900s, when the demand for gasoline began growing.

Oil drillers suck up 15 barrels of water for every barrel of oil they reap. If the water is clean enough, it can be treated and used for irrigation, but most of it contains salt, boron, petroleum and other toxic substances that can poison groundwater and kill birds.

The recommended way to get rid of it is to inject it into the ground, preferably into the oil-bearing formation or deep enough so that it won’t seep into an aquifer. For many years, though, standard practice was to dump the water into a pit so that it would evaporate or percolate into the ground. Grinberg said many permits were issued for the pits in the 1950s and 1960s.

No toxic substances found

The report highlighted contamination near disposal facilities known as Racetrack Hills and Fee 34 east of Bakersfield, with a plume of wastewater spreading into an aquifer that supplies irrigation wells and flows into a tributary of the Kern River, a source of drinking water. However, toxic substances have not been detected in drinking water or in wells.

Air monitoring around a western Kern County pond known as the McKittrick Pit detected elevated levels of methane and the compounds benzene and hexanone, according to the report.

“Every year since 1990 it was monitored and inspectors saw it was in violation, but there was no enforcement action,” Grinberg said of McKittrick, adding that the California Air Resources Board is developing plans to monitor air emissions around open pits.

Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board in Fresno, said operators of both the Racetrack and McKittrick pits have been ordered to expand their monitoring.

“We’re looking at it closely to evaluate whether that series of pits is appropriate,” Rodgers said, explaining that evaporation ponds have gone out of favor in the past two decades. “A lot of these pits have closed down, and now most of the water is disposed of through underground injection.”

In a 2014 report, Clean Water Action presented evidence that the pit technique threatened groundwater and air quality. The state and regional water quality control boards have since stepped up research and enforcement, which the new report noted.

California lawmakers have passed legislation in recent years compelling operators to monitor their wastewater pits and report their findings to the state. Open-pit disposal was also prohibited in hydraulic fracturing operations, known as fracking.

Inaction charged

Grinberg said that while progress has been made, the regional water quality boards are still allowing discharges that threaten groundwater. The Central Valley board has failed to close facilities with open pits or punish companies with no permits, he said.

The report being released Monday also says no studies have been done on 2,074 inactive pits dating back to 1990 that the state has in its inventory, and that the records on these pits are incomplete. Over the past year, Grinberg said, 50 previously undocumented pits have been identified.

“The more they look, the more they are finding,” he said. “This is one negative aspect of oil production. Putting groundwater at additional risk is potentially catastrophic. These polluting activities we don’t believe are worth it, especially during a drought.”

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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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