Tag Archives: Environmental Protection Agency

California shuts dozens of oil wells to stop wastewater injection

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

State shuts 33 wells injecting oil wastewater into aquifers

By David R. Baker, October 16, 2015
A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File) Photo: Jae C. Hong, Associated Press
A person walks past pump jacks operating at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield, Calif. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong, File)

California regulators on Thursday closed 33 oil company wells that had injected wastewater into potentially drinkable aquifers protected by federal law.

The new closures bring to 56 the number of oil-field wastewater injection wells shut down by the state after officials realized they were pumping oil-tainted water into aquifers that potentially could be used for drinking or irrigation.

All but two of the latest closures are in Kern County, in California’s drought-stricken Central Valley. One lies in Ventura County, another in northern Los Angeles County. Officials with California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources spent Friday verifying that they had, in fact, closed. Of the 33, only 21 had been actively injecting wastewater before Thursday.

“This is part of our ongoing effort to ensure that California’s groundwater resources are protected as oil and gas production take place,” said Steven Bohlen, the division’s supervisor.

California’s oil fields contain large amounts of salty water that comes to the surface mixed with the oil. It must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, often by injecting it back underground. Much of the water is pumped back into the same geologic formation it came from. But enough left-over water remains that companies must find other places to put it.

Fears of contamination

The division, part of California’s Department of Conservation, for years issued oil companies permits to inject their left-over water into aquifers that were supposed to be off-limits, protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

The problem, detailed in a Chronicle investigation earlier this year, raised fears of water contamination in a state struggling through a historic, four-year drought.

So far, however, no drinking water supplies have been found to be tainted by the injections.

Still, some environmentalists expressed outrage that so few wells had been closed.

The division has identified 178 wells that were injecting into legally protected aquifers with relatively high water quality, defined as those with a maximum of 3,000 parts per million of total dissolved solids. More than 2,000 other wells inject into aquifers that would be harder to use for drinking water, either because they are too salty or because they also contain oil.

“This is too little, too late to protect our water,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity. “With each passing day the oil industry is polluting more and more of our precious water.”

The division reported Friday, however, that not all 178 wells required closure. Some had already been shut down by their operators, while others had been converted into wells for extracting oil — not dumping wastewater.

An oil industry trade group noted that all of the wells closed Thursday had received state permits, even if the state now acknowledges that those permits should never have been issued.

“Both regulators and producers are committed to protecting underground water supplies, and today’s announcement reinforces the seriousness of that commitment,” said Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association.

Safeguarding water supplies

“California’s oil and natural gas producers are committed to operating their wells in a manner that continues to safeguard public water supplies,” she said.

Revelations that the division allowed injections into relatively fresh groundwater supplies touched off a political firestorm, triggered lawsuits, and led Bohlen to launch a reorganization of his staff.

More well closures will likely follow. Under regulations adopted this year, wells injecting into aquifers with water quality between 3,000 and 10,000 total dissolved solids must cease injections by Feb. 15, 2017, unless granted an exemption from the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

    California: Aquifer oil waste dumping to cease

    Repost from The San Francisco Chronicle

    Aquifer oil waste dumping to cease

    State plan gives firms until Oct. 15 to stop injecting tainted water

    By David R. Baker, Feb 10, 2015
    Pumps operate at the Kern River Oil Field in Bakersfield in January. Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

    Oil companies in California must stop injecting wastewater from their operations into potentially drinkable aquifers by Oct. 15, according to a plan by state regulators who allowed it to happen for years.

    In a proposal submitted to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, regulators promised to painstakingly review wells at risk of contamination, ensuring the injections did not taint aquifers already used for drinking water or irrigation in the drought-plagued Central Valley.

    The plan — from California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — comes in response to revelations that, for decades, the division granted oil companies permits to inject leftover water from their operations into aquifers that the federal government wanted protected. Now, with California heading into a fourth year of drought, that water may be difficult for humans to use.

    A Chronicle analysis found that the state allowed oil companies to drill 171 wastewater injection wells into aquifers that could have been tapped for crops or people. Of those wells, 140 are still in use, according to the division. Injection into those wells must stop by mid-October unless specifically approved by the EPA, according to the plan.

    A shuttered injection well next to a Palla Farms almond orchard sits empty in January. Palla Farms filed a suit blaming several oil companies for contaminating the local groundwater and killing trees. Jae C. Hong / Associated Press

    February deadline  

    An additional 253 wells breached lower-quality aquifers still considered off-limits by the EPA, from which water could have been used with more extensive treatment. Oil companies must cease using   these wells by Feb. 15, 2017, barring an exemption from the EPA.

    The EPA, which helped uncover the practice in 2011, had given the division until Feb. 6 to submit plans for fixing the problem. The EPA has threatened to seize control of regulating the oil industry’s underground injection wells in California if the state doesn’t do a better job protecting groundwater supplies from contamination. (Although the division’s plan is dated Feb. 6, it was released to the public on Monday.)

    “Our goal is to make sure the state is up to the job,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the EPA, in an interview before the division submitted its plans. “Frankly, if it got to the level where we needed to take (control) back, we would. That’s never been off the table. But I think we’re fairly far from needing to do that.”

    The time frame for reform has already drawn fire from environmentalists. But both state and federal regulators say the oil industry will need time   to comply. If the division is forced to shut down some wells to protect drinking water supplies, the oil companies will have time to find other ways to deal with the waste.

    “This is a problem that we worked ourselves into over 30 years, and it’s not a problem that can be solved in a year,” said the division’s new supervisor, Steven Bohlen, appointed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

    Problem’s roots  

    The problem dates to 1983, when the EPA gave the division authority to enforce the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in California’s oil fields.

    The state’s oil reservoirs typically contain large amounts of briny water mixed with the crude. Companies must separate the oil from the water and get rid of the water, which is usually too laden with minerals and hydrocarbons to be used for drinking and irrigation. In addition, oil-extraction techniques such as hydraulic fracturing use freshwater that becomes tainted in the process and needs disposal   .

    Companies inject much of the leftover water back into oil reservoirs. But some of it is pumped into salty underground aquifers that have no oil.

    The 1983 agreement listed by name aquifers that the oil industry would be able to use with a simple permit from the division. But in a bizarre snafu, there were two signed versions of the agreement, one of which listed 11 aquifers not found on the other.

    The division started issuing permits for injection wells drilled into those aquifers, even though they didn’t previously contain oil and weren’t viewed by the EPA as suitable for wastewater disposal. Under the agreement, the EPA has final say on which aquifers the oil industry can and can’t use.

    The state even authorized oil companies to inject into a handful of aquifers already in use for drinking and irrigation, leading to the emergency closure of eight injection wells last year. Officials have now tested nine nearby drinking wells for contamination and   found none. But aquifers tainted with chemicals are difficult and expensive to clean, and state water regulators say they can’t be certain that contamination won’t eventually turn up in those drinking water supplies.

    Onus on oil firms  

    In the future, oil companies will need to build a case for why specific aquifers should be considered suitable for wastewater disposal, according to the division’s proposal. The companies will submit their data to the division and the State Water Resources Control Board for review. If those two state agencies agree, they will — together — ask the EPA to allow injections into those aquifers.

    As for the 11 aquifers compromised by the 1983 bureaucratic mix-up, injections there will be phased out by mid-February 2017, unless the EPA decides to let them continue.

      King Co., Washington worriedly preps for oil train fire

      Repost from Crosscut – News of the Great Nearby, Seattle, WA
      [Editor: – Emergency training is going on all across North America.  Two examples: see Missouri firefighters train to handle fires, and Norfolk Southern Brings 40 Emergency Responders from Nine States to World-class Training Center for Crude-by-Rail Safety Class, not including California.  Where are the stories about training of Northern California emergency responders?  – RS]

      King County worriedly preps for oil train fire

      Executive Dow Constantine says a training exercise helps but the region needs a reduction or elimination of the dangerous trains.
      August 7, 2014
      Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay.
      Tank cars hours after they derailed under the Magnolia Bridge in Interbay. Bill Lucia

      Five rail cars carrying petroleum crude oil derail and catch fire near Boeing Field, about five miles south of downtown Seattle. That was the scenario during a tabletop exercise King County held Tuesday.

      The planning exercise took place less than two weeks after three tank cars carrying highly flammable crude oil from North Dakota derailed in Seattle’s Interbay neighborhood. That incident was relatively benign. None of the cars leaked or caught fire. The mock scenario discussed on Tuesday was designed to be far more precarious.

      “This is an emerging public safety threat,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at a press conference on Wednesday. “And we need to have our emergency preparedness folks really up to speed on it and well-coordinated. And that’s what yesterday’s exercise was all about.”

      The exercise highlighted some of the complications responders might face when dealing with burning tank cars of crude oil, such as monitoring toxic smoke, transporting evacuated people and delivering information to the public.

      Between eight and 13 trains operated by BNSF Railway Co. pass through King County each week carrying crude oil, according to information the railroad released in June to the Washington Military Department.

      A local fire chief involved in the exercise acknowledged on Wednesday that responders would most likely have to let some of the fuel burn off if one of those trains crashed and five tank cars were ablaze.

      The cars commonly used to transport petroleum crude oil have a capacity of about 30,000 gallons apiece. In past wrecks, un-breached cars, heated by surrounding flames, have ruptured in dramatic explosions.

      “We’ll want to probably suppress the fire enough to assess the integrity and exposure to the other tank cars. We’d certainly want to minimize life risks,” said Mark Chubb, Fire Chief of King County Fire District 20.

      “It’s unusual for all five tank cars to breach,” he also said.

      Battling flames would not be the only problem that burning tank cars of crude oil would present for responders.

      “We have to be mindful of the impact of the smoke column on aviation,” Chubb said. He also noted that a large oil train fire could create problems on Interstate 5, even if the smoke and flames do not reach the highway. “The distraction of an event of this scale,” he said, “is going to be highly disruptive.”

      Chubb added: “After you grapple with the fact that it’s a fire and it’s going to go on a while, it’s all about logistics.”

      Walt Hubbard, director the King County Office of Emergency Management, viewed Tuesday’s exercise as helpful, because it got people from different agencies together in the same place, talking about how they would coordinate and communicate if there were a serious crude oil train accident.

      In addition to emergency responders, staff from local transportation and public health departments attended, as did officials from federal agencies, such as the Federal Emergency Management Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Environmental Protection Agency.

      Representatives from BNSF were also on hand. The company operated the train that derailed in Interbay.

      For Hubbard, having the railroad representatives at the exercise was important.

      “We want to keep them engaged,” he said. Hubbard specifically pointed to dialogue that took place between BNSF representatives and fire officials about what kinds of equipment and people the railroad could deploy after an accident.

      “That was a very good exchange,” he said.

      Another topic that came up during the exercise was evacuations. If a rail car of crude oil is on fire, U.S. Department of Transportation guidelines recommend that responders consider evacuating people within a half-mile of the accident scene.

      The risk of an explosion would be one immediate reason to evacuate the area around the fire. But Chubb, the King County fire chief, also noted that toxic smoke is a hazard, and said that responders would consult with officials from public health agencies and the EPA when considering whether to tell people to leave the area.