Tag Archives: Safe Drinking Water Act

State conservation chief quits amid tainted aquifer controversy

Repost from the San Francisco Chronicle

State conservation chief quits amid tainted aquifer controversy

By David R. Baker, Friday, June 5, 2015 7:07 pm
Mark Nechodom Director of California Department of Conservation spoke at a press conference held at One Rincon Hill, located at First and Harrison streets Wednesday May 30, 2012. Both State and Federal scientist have collaborated to install over 72 geological sensors and two and a half miles of wire throughout the 64 stories tower thatÕs home to over six hundred people in San Francisco. Scientists say that there's a 63 percent probability of a damaging earthquake magnitude 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years in the Bay Area. The data collected at One Rincon Hill South Tower could be very helpful scientifically. Photo: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle
Mark Nechodom Director of California Department of Conservation spoke at a press conference held at One Rincon Hill, located at First and Harrison streets Wednesday May 30, 2012. Both State and Federal scientist have collaborated to install over 72 geological sensors and two and a half miles of wire throughout the 64 stories tower thatÕs home to over six hundred people in San Francisco. Scientists say that there’s a 63 percent probability of a damaging earthquake magnitude 6.7 or greater in the next 30 years in the Bay Area. The data collected at One Rincon Hill South Tower could be very helpful scientifically. Photo: Lance Iversen, The Chronicle

The head of the California Department of Conservation, Mark Nechodom, abruptly resigned Thursday following an outcry over oil companies injecting their wastewater into Central Valley aquifers that were supposed to be protected by law.

Nechodom, who had led the department for three years, announced his resignation in a brief letter to John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency. The Conservation Department is part of the resources agency.

“I have appreciated being part of this team and helping to guide it through a difficult time,” Nechodom wrote.

Nechodom did not give a reason for his departure. But a division of the Conservation Department that regulates oil-field operations has come under intense criticism for letting oil companies inject wastewater into aquifers that could have been used for drinking or irrigation.

A spokeswoman for the Natural Resources Agency said she could not comment on Nechodom’s reasons for leaving, calling it a personnel issue. Jason Marshall, the Conservation Department’s chief deputy director, will lead the department while a permanent replacement is sought.

The department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources for years improperly issued hundreds of wastewater injection permits into aquifers that should have been protected by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, a problem detailed in a Chronicle investigation in February.

By the division’s most recent count, 452 disposal wells went into aquifers whose water, if treated, could have been used for drinking or irrigation. Another 2,021 wells pumped wastewater or steam into aquifers that also contain oil, with the injections helping to squeeze more petroleum from the ground.

California oil fields typically contain large amounts of water that must be separated from the petroleum and disposed of, usually by pumping it back underground. But oil companies can inject their “produced water” only into aquifers that have been specifically approved for wastewater storage by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

The division has shut down 23 injection wells deemed to pose the greatest threat and has committed to closing the rest in stages over the next two years. So far, the injections have not been found to have contaminated any wells used for drinking water.

The injections, and the division’s schedule for closing them, have prompted lawsuits, including one filed this week that named Nechodom as a defendant. That suit, filed on behalf of Central Valley farmers, alleges Nechodom, Gov. Jerry Brown and oil companies engaged in a conspiracy to circumvent the law.

Before Brown picked him to lead the Conservation Department, Nechodom had been a senior policy adviser for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. He had also served as a senior climate science policy adviser to the chief of the U.S. Forest Service.

Until this year, however, he might have been best known as the husband of former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, who completed her term in 2014 after revealing that she was battling severe depression that left her unable to work on many days.

 

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    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.

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