Gorge leaders oppose Vancouver oil terminal as hearings wrap up
By Patrick Mulvihill, August 5, 2016
Gorge leaders spoke out against a proposed oil-by-marine terminal in Vancouver as hearings over the project’s fate came to a close July 29.
Washington State’s Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council (EFSEC) heard closing arguments for an environmental review of the terminal proposed by Vancouver Energy, a venture spearheaded by Tesoro Corp.
EFSEC is charged with recommending whether Washington Gov. Jay Inslee should approve or reject the 360,000-barrel per day oil hub at the Port of Vancouver, and panel’s decision is expected in late 2016.
At Friday’s hearing — the final chance for public oral testimony — local elected leaders and environmental advocates evoked the recent memory of Mosier, where a crude oil bearing train derailed and caught fire on June 3.
Arlene Burns, mayor of Mosier, gave the panel a stark depiction of the aftermath.
“We’re really still exhausted,” she said. “This is going to be an ongoing, long-term process that we’re going to be dealing with,” Burns said.
She noted that Mosier’s groundwater had been contaminated by oil during the spill. Drinking water has been declared safe, but concerns remain for the rainy season washing out remaining oil in the ground.
Peter Cornelison, a Hood River City Council member and field representative for Friends of the Columbia River Gorge, argued the risks of a new terminal — and boosted train traffic — would affect all river communities.
Proponents of the terminal highlighted economic benefits and stressed a need for United States’ independence in the oil industry. They said the terminal would be held to regulatory safeguards.
“We believe the evidence has demonstrated that this project is necessary to secure a strong sustainable reliable supply of energy for the citizens of Washington,” Jay P. Derr, an attorney representing Tesoro, said.
“We ask the council to recognize and remember the benefits the Port of Vancouver provides, and work hard to avoid … hurting those structures and processes that allow the port to provide those benefits to the community,” said David Bartz, a port attorney.
Most testimony disagreed with the terminal’s backers about the project’s safety and economic value.
Washington Attorney General’s Office came out last week against the terminal. Attorney General Bob Ferguson said the potential benefits of the project are “dramatically outweighed by the potential risks and costs of a spill.”
The cities of Vancouver and Spokane also voiced opposition, a sentiment expressed in recent months by letters and resolutions by tribes, advocacy groups and governments throughout the region.
Lauren Goldberg, staff attorney with Columbia Riverkeeper, said the local group hopes in light of the Mosier derailment, EFSEC will recognize the risk of another fiery oil train wreck in the Columbia Gorge.
Both sides in the issue will now file closing written briefs, ending testimony. EFSEC is expected to issue a decision in late 2016. From there, Inslee will make a decision that can be appealed in state supreme court.
Mosier groundwater contaminated after derailment spill
By Patrick Mulvihill, July 22, 2016
Regulators have found contaminated groundwater at the site of the June 3 fiery oil train derailment in Mosier.
There’s no current threat to drinking water or beach users, according to Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), but concerns have surfaced for wildlife health in the Rock Creek wetland near the Columbia River.
“It really isn’t a significant issue of harming human health; however, there is a wetland (nearby) and we’re mainly concerned for animals (living there),” said Bob Schwarz, DEQ project manager.
DEQ staff found high levels of benzene and other volatile organic compounds in one of four test wells crews installed north of the Union Pacific train tracks in Mosier shortly after the train wreck.
Schwarz described the contaminant levels discovered at the east-most site as roughly 10 times higher than the safe amount for animal populations — 1,800 parts of benzene per billion, compared to the ecological risk level of 130 parts.
The wetland ecosystem includes various amphibians and insects, he said.
DEQ has ruled the local drinking water safe because Mosier’s municipal water supply is located about a mile away from the spill area, uphill.
Beach access at Mosier — a popular watersports access spot — has been deemed safe. Booms laid out on the river following the derailment (to catch a small sheen of oil) have since been removed.
Mosier’s wastewater system is also back in action. While heavy green sewage tanks and pump trucks were a common sight during early June, the town no longer trucks sewage to Hood River for treatment.
In the derailment, 16 cars of a 96-car Union Pacific train bearing Bakken crude oil left the tracks in what U.P. ruled an accident due to faulty rail bolts. At least three cars caught fire. Crews extinguished the blaze by early morning the next day.
About 47,000 gallons of oil escaped from four rail cars.
During the wreck, one of the railcars tore off the lid of a sanitary sewer manhole, allowing roughly 13,000 gallons of oil to flow into the nearby Mosier wastewater treatment plant. That system was shut down as crews worked to pump out oil and clean the piping network.
As a temporary fix, workers trucked sewage from Mosier to Hood River for treatment at the municipal plant on Riverside Drive. By June 16, the plant was restored, and shortly after Mosier’s system was fully functional.
A small sheen of oil leaked into the Columbia River through the wastewater system at some point following the wreck, DEQ reported.
Crews cast out absorbing booms into the river to contain the sheen. The exact amount is “unknown but low in volume,” according to a DEQ fact sheet, but it quickly dissipated.
Surface water samples in the river didn’t show any significant contamination from the spill, Schwarz said. He expects the booms will be replaced in September, before autumn rains, in case new rain flushes any oil from the ground into the river.
Agencies reported that the rest of the oil was burned off or absorbed into the soil. Excavation workers disposed of about 29,600 tons of earth that had been contaminated with petroleum.
Oil remaining in the derailed cars was transferred by truck to The Dalles, then hauled by rail to Tacoma, Wash., its original destination. The emptied railcars were taken by truck to Portland for salvage.
Following the derailment, DEQ oversaw the installation of six wells near the train tracks — two extraction wells and four monitoring wells. At the fourth monitoring site, staff found high petroleum levels and other compounds.
Now, DEQ is working with the railroad’s consultant to design an underground system that will treat the contamination, Schwarz said.
The “biosparge” system will include vertical pipes where air will be injected into the ground water. That oxygen will spur growth of naturally occurring microbes that will break down the oil.
“We are still waiting for groundwater flow direction information from CH2M, the consultant for Union Pacific Railroad,” Schwarz said in a July 6 memo.
Local conservation group Columbia Riverkeeper raised concerns about U.P.’s role in the high pollutant levels and called for a third party to steer the cleanup.
“It’s very concerning that we have such high levels of toxic pollutants so close to the river,” Riverkeeper staff attorney Lauren Goldberg said.
She asserted that the public needs to hold state officials accountable so that “U.P. is not at the wheel of this cleanup.”
Schwarz expects a small drill rig and a half dozen or so workers will be on scene in Mosier to implement the treatment system.
Yesterday we celebrated the 45th anniversary of Earth Day.
And you can’t think of the earth without thinking about the way Big Oil’s business model is based on exploiting resources that belong to us all.
Case in point: Kern County’s depleting oil fields is a symptom of ecological overshooting. And Big Oil adds insult to injury when they contaminate our precious water supply with their toxic waste.
Perhaps actor Ed Begley, Jr., summed it up best, “I don’t understand why when we destroy something created by man we call it vandalism, but when we destroy something created by nature we call it progress.”
This Earth Day let’s tell Big Oil to knock it off – for the sake of every person living here. Find plug-and-play tweets and posts below to help get the word out.
Twitter: #BigOil illegally dumps chemical waste in hundreds of unlined pits in #Kern. #WaterNotOil #CAdrought #StopFoolingCA pic.twitter.com/ZiDDiXcY9W Facebook: Big Oil illegally dumps chemical waste into hundreds of unlined pits in Kern County. You know, so it can seep back into the ground.Why? How do you dispose of your toxic waste?#WaterNotOil
Twitter: #BigOil’s waste forced farmers 2 pull up crops. Just. Stop it. #WaterNotOil #StopFoolingCA pic.twitter.com/pomWu2PSwg Facebook: Mike Hopkins had to pull up his cherry trees in 2013 and filed a lawsuit against the oil companies with injection wells around his orchards.“We’re farmers,” Hopkins said. Pulling up the withered fruit trees “broke our hearts.”
Read about Mike here: http://www.pressdemocrat.com/news/3489997-181/california-allowed-oilfield-dumping-into?page=3
Twitter:Of all the ways to waste water, #fracking is definitely the dumbest. http://bit.ly/1DpwYyo #StopFoolingCA #CADrought pic.twitter.com/vvUeOsZdjH Facebook: Out of all the ways to waste water in California, oil extraction is possibly the worst and definitely the dumbest. #StopFoolingCA
Twitter: Looks like an action movie. It’s actually just @BP_Press making “safe” #energy http://lat.ms/1zCsbEQ pic.twitter.com/3FKIwIkKYM Facebook: It’s been five years since BP’s Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and spilling millions of gallons of crude oil.Yet the risk to the Gulf of Mexico is as high as ever.How’d Big Oil pull that off?http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-0420-smith-bp-20150420-story.html
In California, Farmers Rely on Oil Wastewater to Weather Drought
By Zoë Schlanger / April 6, 2015 6:54 AM EDT
The wet, white noise of gushing water rises above a background track of twangy guitar. Water is tumbling out of a pipe into a holding pond that looks as though it has sat nearly empty for ages, its sandy sides the color of parched desert. It looks like the California of recent headlines: drought so bad the ground is blowing away. Except now, here, in this promotional video for Chevron, there is water. Lots of it.
“The sound of that water is music to my ears,” David Ansolabehere, the general manager of the Cawelo Water District in Kern County, says in the video, gazing out over the rapidly filling pond. “Chevron is being environmentally conscious, and this is a very beneficial program, and it’s helped a lot of our farmers, helped our district, tremendously.”
The oil fields of Kern County, where Chevron is the largest producer, pump out more oil than those of any other county in the United States. It also happens to be one of the country’s most prolific agricultural counties, producing over $6 billion in crop value every year. But after three years of strangling drought, all that agriculture is on life support.
That’s where Chevron comes in. For every barrel of oil Chevron produces in its Kern River oil field, another 10 barrels of salty wastewater come up with it. So Chevron is selling about 500,000 barrels of water per day, or 21 million gallons, back to the Cawelo Water District—the local water district that delivers water to farmers within a seven-mile slice of Kern County—at an undisclosed amount, but “essentially ‘at cost,’” according to Chevron spokesman Cameron Van Ast. In a time when freshwater in the Central Valley is selling at up to 10 times the typical cost, it’s a good deal for farmers.
The wastewater Chevron is selling flows, without municipal treatment (though the oil products are removed), to 90 local farmers who spread it on their citrus, nut and grape crops. The Cawelo Water District might first mix the wastewater with freshwater, or it might not, depending on what crop the wastewater will be used on—and on how much freshwater is available at the time. In the midst of a drought, there is less freshwater, so the water the farmers get is saltier than in a wet year. But the farmers understand that using the salty wastewater on their crops is an emergency measure. If all goes as planned, when the rains come back the excess salt will be flushed through the soil.
But it’s a risky dance; over time, high sodium can change the properties of the soil, making it impermeable, unable to take in any more water. Trees would start to get “salt burn.” Their leaves would turn yellow, and yields would decline. Eventually, the soil becomes barren.
Ansolabehere says the wastewater mixture sent to farmers is rigorously monitored to keep from salting the soil to that degree. It is tested quarterly for salts and boron, he says. “The only reason this program works is because [Chevron’s] production water is of very good quality,” he says. “So maybe we’ll have a little salt buildup. But the next rain will flush it out.”
But the National Weather Service doesn’t foresee much rain in the immediate future. In fact, drought conditions may “intensify.”
For local farmers, dwindling water is a noose slowly tightening. Most take relief wherever they can get it, but not Tom Frantz. “I would rather let my trees die” than use the Chevron water, he says. Frantz is a small-time almond farmer who lives about six miles from the oilfields where the wastewater is pumped into mixing basins. His 36 acres are a speck in the shadow of much larger operations; vast orange groves, pistachio trees, rows and rows of almond trees. But Frantz knows farming. He’s been in Kern County, just west of the town Shafter, for all of his 65 years. His grandparents were farmers a few miles away. His parents farmed, too. There’s a generation below him, he says, who look as if they’ll take it up soon.
In normal years, Frantz depends on groundwater pumped from wells, as well as “surface water,” the water held in municipal reservoirs that flows in frigid streams from the melting snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains. But with the Sierra snowpack this winter at a paltry 6 percent of its typical heft, there won’t be much to melt. Chevron’s wastewater is an option, but Frantz knows what all farmers know: You can’t grow food with salty water for very long.
“It’s just not sustainable at all to use salty water, no matter how much you dilute it…. We can farm here a long time, if we’re careful about the salts that we apply,” he says. “I’ve seen the farms that have saltier groundwater, and they have severe difficulties after 50 years. That’s very low levels of salts that’ll do that.”
Frantz has little confidence in how oil industry wastewater is regulated in his area, and he is concerned by what still isn’t known about the contents of the wastewater. Recently, there was a scandal over news that state oil and gas officials for years let oil companies inject drilling and fracking wastewater into hundreds of wells in protected aquifers. The water was laden with the benzene, a carcinogen, according to a Los Angeles Times investigation. “What it shows me is that we have to look out for ourselves,” Frantz says.
California doesn’t have statewide regulations for recycling wastewater for agriculture. Instead, nine regional water boards issue permits to local water districts. Once a year, the Cawelo Water District is required to send data about the salt and boron content to the Central Valley Water Board, according to Clay Rodgers, the board’s assistant executive officer. But the district isn’t obligated to test for other components, like heavy metals, arsenic, radioactive materials and chemicals that might be used in the drilling process. Ansolabehere says Cawelo has tested for radioactive elements “a couple of times” over the past 20 years, since “it’s very expensive” to test for, and it isn’t required by the board. Those tests have not turned up any positive results.
Chevron, for its part, says testing last month showed no heavy metals or chemical toxins were present in the water above maximum allowable levels. The arsenic levels were high, however, but “issues related to the arsenic concentrations in the water were fully addressed in the process of obtaining the permit from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board,” Chevron said in a statement. “Protection of people and the environment is a core value for Chevron, and we take all necessary steps to ensure the protection of our water resources.”
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board came to the conclusion that the high arsenic in the waste water was acceptable because most of the arsenic appeared in models to get “tied up” in the soil as it made its way down to the water table, says Rodgers. In other words, the Board sees no threat of tainting the groundwater with arsenic, because it largely stays in the soil. But no monitoring is in place to see if that arsenic is building up to unsafe levels in the agricultural soils themselves.
Little to no independent scientific research has been done on this type of water and how it interacts with crops, soil and surrounding bodies of water. Some scientists say there are too many unknowns associated with the wastewater from oilfields. If it is being used on food, and to irrigate land that lies above drinking water aquifers, we need to know more about it, they say—especially in light of the fact that, as Rodgers notes, the Central Valley hopes to expand its use for farm irrigation during the drought.
“There might not be a single risk out there with this practice. But the biggest risk that we have right now is that we just don’t know,” says Seth Shonkoff, an environmental public health scientist and a visiting scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. “So until we know, we definitely have reason for concern. We know that there are compounds being put down oil and gas wells that you would not want in your food.”
To Shonkoff’s knowledge, no scientist has ever published a study on what compounds from the oil development process—examples he gives are methanol, biocides and surfactants—might be in oilfield wastewater used on crops. Chevron says these constituents are kept separate from the water delivered to farmers.
Avner Vengosh, a Duke University geochemist, is serving on an expert panel for the U.S. Geological Survey while it begins to look into the quality of produced oil-field water from Kern County. His data are “only preliminary,” but he has found “high levels of vanadium, chromium and selenium” in the samples of wastewater he has tested (although he was unable to say if the water was produced from Chevron’s operations or another of the many operators in the area). Those levels are consistent with data from oil- and gas-produced water from other basins in the U.S., according to Vengosh.
Vanadium, a metal, is classified as “possibly carcinogenic” by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. Certain forms of chromium and selenium, both heavy metals, are associated with myriad health problems, including cancer, from chronic high exposure. Ansolabehere says the Cawelo Water District tested for chromium and selenium once, last year, and found none. It has never tested for vanadium. None of these metals are required to be tested for by the Central Valley Water Board.
Could the crops be absorbing these metals? The California Department of Food and Agriculture says it doesn’t have the jurisdiction to look. The Central Valley Water Board doesn’t sample crop residues where the water is used, either.
For Vengosh, what is most worrisome is the possibility that the water is seeping through the farmland into the water table. “It would end up in underlying groundwater. If the groundwater is moving to a drinking water source, you would end up with that in the drinking water eventually,” he says.
No matter how tough the drought gets, Frantz says, he won’t be taking the Chevron water. “It just doesn’t make sense to ruin something,” he says. “To get through years like this, we have to take some land out of production.”
But for Roy Pierucci, a farmer who manages a 160-acre pistachio farm that falls within the Cawelo Water District, the unknowns about the Chevron water won’t deter him from using it. If the water contains some as of yet unknown elements, “it would be a risk we’d be willing to take,” he says, without hesitation. He’s been using the Chevron water for 10 years and has never seen a problem with his crops. (Pierucci was featured in the Chevron promotional video, though he wasn’t paid for the appearance—he says he participated because he values what the company does for the water district.)
“I’ve really never asked what the analysis of the water is. I just know it’s available. There hasn’t been any complaints about it. I don’t think they recommend drinking it,” Pierucci says. “If [the drought] keeps up year after year, I think it would be a concern. I think the salt levels would be higher. They blend it for a reason.”
The Chevron water is vital to Pierucci’s operation, but it isn’t a game changer. “It’s not going to save us,” he says. Three years of brutal drought have left his pistachio trees teetering on the edge of survival. If the drought persists another two or three years, he says, he’ll have to start ripping out his trees and reducing the number of acres he irrigates. On another property he manages, where there is no pumping well on-site, he imagines he’ll be pulling out trees within a year. “You can’t chase water forever. Sooner or later you’re going to lose.”
This article has been updated to include a statement from Chevron regarding their internal water testing processes and results, as well as information about arsenic monitoring from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.