Tag Archives: Clean Water Act

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[Editor: Significant quote: “The report says there are 790 active pits in California and that 60 percent of them have out-of-date permits or no permit at all.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The report says there are 790 active pits in California and that 60 percent of them have out-of-date permits or no permit at all.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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US House approves $279 million renewable energy cut; raises funding for fossil fuel research by $34 million

Press Release from Friends of the Earth
[Editor:  As you might expect, this travesty was passed on a nearly complete party line vote, with 230 Republicans and 10 Dems in favor.  Dems voting FOR the bill included:  A. Dutch Ruppersberger MD, Ami Bera CA, Brad Ashford NE, Collin Peterson MN, Doris Matsui CA, Filemon Vela TX, Gene Green TX, Henry Cuellar TX, Jim Costa CA, and William Keating MA.  Republicans voting AGAINST the bill included: Christopher Gibson NY, James Sensenbrenner Jr. WI, Joseph Heck NV, Justin Amash MI, Mo Brooks AL, Thomas Massie KY, Walter Jones Jr. NC.   Track the bill here.  – RS]

House approves $279 million renewable energy cut

By: Kate Colwell, May. 1, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The House of Representatives passed H.R. 2028, “The Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2016,” by a vote of 240-177.

The bill sets funding levels for important programs within the U.S. Departments of Energy, Interior, and the Army Corps of Engineers. While staying within the limits set by the sequester, the bill manages to raise funding for fossil fuel research by $34 million from 2015 levels while cutting renewable energy and efficiency research by $279 million. Simultaneously, it is packed with policy riders that undermine bedrock environmental laws like the Clean Water Act and limit the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to study the dangers of hydraulic fracturing.

Friends of the Earth Climate and Energy Campaigner Lukas Ross issued the following statement in response:

Shoveling more of our tax dollars into the pockets of ExxonMobil and the Koch Brothers while defunding clean energy is climate denial at its worst. Fossil fuel interests don’t need more money. Solutions to the climate crisis do.

From hobbling the Clean Water Act to limiting the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to even study fracking, House Speaker John Boehner is continuing his assault on the air we breathe and the water we drink.

###

Expert contact: Lukas Ross, (202) 222-0724, lross@foe.org
Communications contact: Kate Colwell, (202) 222-0744, kcolwell@foe.org
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Are California foie gras, oil train court cases on parallel tracks?

Repost from McClatchyDC News
[Editor: Despite the curious analogy to foie gras, this is a SERIOUS discussion of Federal pre-emption and California’s attempt to regulate crude by rail.  Apologies for the auto-play video.  – RS]

Are California foie gras, oil train court cases on parallel tracks?

By Curtis Tate, January 15, 2015
US NEWS RAIL-SAFETY 1 WA
On April 30, 2014, a CSX train carrying Bakken crude oil derailed in downtown Lynchburg, Va. No one was injured or killed but three tank cars went into the James River, spilling 30,000 gallons of oil and igniting a fire. CURTIS TATE — TNS

WASHINGTON — Perhaps the only imaginable connection between trains and foie gras, the famous French delicacy obtained by force-feeding duck or geese to fatten up their livers, would be as an appetizer in the dining car of the luxury Orient Express.

Ah. Pas vrai.

A California court recently overturned the state law against selling foie gras because poultry regulation is a federal concern. And that’s just what the railroad industry is arguing about a state law enacted last year requiring it to develop oil spill response plans.

The law came about as an expected increase in crude oil transported to California by rail raised concerns about public safety and emergency response.

Like the restaurants that serve foie gras and the industry that supplies it, railroads have decided they won’t be forced to swallow a state law that they think is pre-empted by a federal one.

In the foie gras case, a producer and a restaurant that served it argued that California’s attempt to choke off sales ran afoul of the federal Poultry Products Inspection Act. Last week, a U.S. district judge agreed, citing the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution, which gives Congress the ability to displace state laws.

Similarly, the Association of American Railroads, the rail industry’s principal advocacy organization, and two of California’s major railroads, Union Pacific and BNSF, argue that the Federal Rail Safety Act derails the state’s oil spill response requirements.

According to some attorneys who know the issue well, California’s law is heading to the end of the line.

“I don’t think the court will struggle with this,” said Kevin Sheys, a Washington attorney who advises railroads but has no involvement in the California case. “The law will be struck down.”

Environmental groups, however, argue that other federal laws apply to the railroads. Patti Goldman, a Seattle-based attorney with Earthjustice, an environmental group, said the Clean Water Act and the Oil Pollution Act, the latter passed in response to the Exxon Valdez oil tanker disaster, gave states the power to enact stricter oil spill response requirements than federal ones.

That’s in contrast to the Federal Rail Safety Act, which doesn’t allow states much room to exceed what’s required at the federal level. A court decision that weighs more heavily on the rail safety act would favor the railroads. A reliance on federal water pollution laws would favor the state.

“The structures for pre-emption in there are almost polar opposite,” Goldman said. “The federal government sets a minimum standard, and the states can go further. All of that is a structure that is meant to preserve state authority.”

Sometimes pre-emption works in California’s favor. Opponents of the state’s $68 billion high-speed rail system tried to slow down the project by arguing that it was subject to the California Environmental Quality Act and required extensive impact reviews.

But in a 2-1 ruling last month, the federal Surface Transportation Board said the project was exempt from the state law. Last week, state and federal officials, including Gov. Jerry Brown, broke ground on the project in Fresno.

As a more practical matter, railroads have largely prevailed in pre-emption cases because courts have been sympathetic to the notion that a patchwork of 50 different state laws could unreasonably burden interstate commerce.

In a notable case in Washington, D.C., a decade ago, a federal court struck down a local law that prohibited the shipment of hazardous materials by rail within two miles of the Capitol. A busy CSX freight line runs only blocks away, and the law would have forced lengthy and expensive detours of hazardous cargo.

But a massive increase in the transportation of crude oil by rail in recent years, and with it an increase in high-profile accidents, has exposed gaps in safety and emergency preparedness. California is bracing for a big increase in crude by rail, and last year the legislature extended the state’s oil spill response requirements to cover inland waterways.

That, naturally, affected railroads, which historically followed rivers because of the level terrain for heavy trains, including California’s Feather and Sacramento rivers.

The Association of American Railroads declined to comment on the California case, but spokesman Ed Greenberg noted that railroads “have extensive emergency plans in place, which include procedures in working with local first responders” and have “stepped-up emergency response capability planning and training.”

David Beltran, a spokesman for California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who’s defending the law, wouldn’t comment on the case beyond what’s in court filings.

State Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat, said the attorney general’s office had assured him that the law wouldn’t be pre-empted when it came before his committee last year.

“We feel comfortable based on the legal opinions we have,” Hill said.

He thinks it’s premature to predict that the law will be invalidated. But Hill said that he and others who supported it should be prepared for that outcome.

“Everyone would regroup and try to find a way to meet the goals that we’re trying to achieve,” he said.

Harris, who’s said she’ll run next year for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Democrat Barbara Boxer, also defended the foie gras ban. She tried to have that suit dismissed by arguing that she had no present intent on enforcing the law while reserving the right to do so.

That prompted a quip from Judge Stephen Wilson in his 15-page ruling striking it down: “Defendant seeks to have her paté and eat it, too.”

Harris made a similar argument in the rail case.

“I think it’s going to be decided the same way,” said Mike Mills, an oil and gas attorney in Sacramento. “I don’t see a different outcome.”

Mills said the California case might put a federal solution on a faster track.

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued an Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in August for a new regulation that would require railroads hauling crude oil to have comprehensive oil spill response plans. The rule would apply uniformly across all states, and it would achieve what California tried to do on its own.

“Oftentimes, litigation will produce a decision that forms the basis for new legislation,” Mills said. “Potentially, it could happen.”

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