Tag Archives: San Joaquin Valley

California Environmental Groups Sue to Stop Fracking

Repost from Public News Service

California Environmental Groups Sue to Stop Fracking

By Suzanne Potter, June 11, 2015

LOS ANGELES – California environmental groups filed suit Wednesday to block a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plan to allow fracking and oil drilling on more than one million acres of public land.

According to Patrick Sullivan with the Center for Biological Diversity, the BLM environmental assessment was inadequate.

“We think the federal government needs to go back to the drawing board and take a really hard look at fracking pollution threats to water, air and public health,” he says.

The environmental lawfirm Earthjustice filed the suit on behalf of the Center for Biological Diversity and Los Padres ForestWatch. Oil companies named in the suit maintain their operations are safe and comply with all regulations.

Sullivan says fracking and oil drilling put the environment and nearby residents at risk.

“The EPA has found instances in which fracking has contaminated drinking water across the country,” he says. “Here in California we know oil companies have dumped waste fluid into protected underground aquifers.”

The federal lands in question stretch across the San Joaquin Valley, southern Sierra Nevada and along the Central Coast in Ventura, Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties.

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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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Green coalition sues Kern County over DEIR failures

Repost from Courthouse News
[Editor: Significant quote: “They claim that the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is ‘riddled with flaws’ because instead of discussing mitigation measures to curb emissions, it assumed that the refinery’s emissions will be ‘reduced to zero’ by participating in the state’s cap-and-trade program, and thus concluded that ‘these emissions are not significant.'”    – RS]

Greens Fight SoCal Tar Sands Oil Project

By Rebekah Kearn, October 13, 2014

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (CN) – Kern County illegally approved expansion of a local refinery that will let it transport and process 70,000 barrels of crude oil a day, environmentalists claim in court.

The Association of Irritated Residents, the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sierra Club sued the Kern County Board of Supervisors and the Kern County Planning and Community Development Department, on Oct. 9 in Superior Court.

Alon U.S.A. Energy, of Texas, and its subsidiary Paramount Petroleum Corp. are named as real parties in interest.

“The lawsuit challenges Kern County’s unlawful approval of a massive oil refinery and rail project that will further harm air quality in the San Joaquin Valley and subject residents in several states to the catastrophic risks of a derailment involving scores of tanker cars filled with explosive Bakken crude oil,” plaintiffs’ attorney Elizabeth Forsyth, with Earthjustice, told Courthouse News.

Bakken crude is from northern Montana and North Dakota, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Much of it is extracted by fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.

“The San Joaquin Valley is already overburdened by industrial pollution,” Forsyth said. “Kern County officials should put the health of their residents over the profits of oil companies.”

The groups claim the county’s approval of the Alon Bakersfield Refinery Crude Oil Flexibility Project and its allegedly inadequate environmental impact report violated the California Environmental Quality Act.

The project quintuples the Alon Bakersfield Refinery’s capacity to import crude oil, “from 40 tank cars per day to 200 tank cars per day, or up to 63.1 million barrels of crude per year,” the 27-page complaint states.

“This influx of cheap, mid-continent crudes, including Canadian tar sands crude and Bakken crude from North Dakota, would allow the shuttered refinery to reopen and run at full capacity, processing 70,000 barrels of crude oil per day,” according to the complaint.

“The project’s massive ramp-up in oil transport and processing poses alarming health and safety threats to the residents of Bakersfield and to those who live along the crude-by-rail route. Restarting the refinery will significantly increase harmful air pollution that will only exacerbate the poor air quality and respiratory illnesses that plague San Joaquin Valley communities already unfairly burdened with industrial pollution.”

Bakken crude oil is “highly volatile,” and shipping it across several states “over treacherous and poorly maintained mountain passages” without adequate safety regulations will expose everyone who lives along the shipping route to the risks of derailment, the environmentalists say.

Trains carrying Bakken crude have derailed and exploded, including the July 2013 disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, which killed 47 people and leveled half of downtown Lec-Mégantic, according to the complaint.

Bakersfield, pop. 464,000, between Los Angeles and Fresno, is the ninth-largest city in California. Kern County produces more oil than any other county in the state, and boasts the fourth largest agricultural output in the country.

Its air quality is abysmal. “Bakersfield has the country’s third most polluted air, according to the American Lung Association, and one in six children in the Valley will be diagnosed with asthma before age 18,” Forsyth told Courthouse News.

Kern County’s notoriously poor air quality causes approximately 1,500 premature deaths each year, and exposure to toxic air pollution racks up “$3 billion to $6 billion in health costs and lost productivity annually,” according to the complaint.

Several schools, residential neighborhoods and a hospital are only a few miles away from the Alon Bakersfield refinery. It is 1,000 feet from the Kern River Parkway, where people hike, walk, and ride bikes along trails and through parks, according to the complaint.

The refinery shut its doors in 2008 when its owner filed for bankruptcy. After sitting inactive for two years, it was bought by Alon in 2010 and “refashioned to convert intermediate vacuum gas oil into finished products,” but stopped all refining operations in December 2012 when the price of local feedstock rose, the complaint states.

In August 2012, Paramount submitted proposed modifications to the county that would let the refinery use the Burlington Northern Santa Fe rail line to bring in 5.5 million gallons of oil per day.

“The five-fold expansion of the terminal’s unloading capacity, from 40 tank cars per day to over 200 tank cars per day, is the largest crude-by-rail project in California, twice the size of the next largest project,” the complaint states.

The Kern County Board of Supervisors approved the environmental impact report on Sept. 9 this year.

But the plaintiffs claim the environmental study “obfuscates and underestimates” the significant impacts posed by the project and ignores the effects that rail transport of Bakken crude will have on air pollution.

“The EIR severely underestimates the safety risks of this project through sloppy math and an incomplete analysis,” the complaint states. “Based on simple mathematical error, the EIR calculates the risk of a train accident involving an oil spill is unlikely to occur within the project’s 30-year lifetime. Correcting this error, however, results in a risk of accident involving an oil spill once every 30 years.”

California has a high risk for catastrophic accidents because many of its 5,000 to 7,000 railroad bridges are over 100 years old and are not routinely inspected by any state or federal agency, and the rail lines run through “hazard areas” such as earthquake faults and densely populated cities, the complaint states.

Kern County is especially vulnerable because “the freight rail track runs through the Tehachapi Mountain, an area identified by the California Interagency Rail Safety Working Group as a ‘high hazard area.’ The rail track includes steep grades, extreme track curvature, and a single track through the majority of the corridor. The elevation loss of this corridor is approximately 3,600 feet from Tehachapi to Bakersfield, and the grade is so steep that it includes the famous ‘Tehachapi loop’ where the railroad line must loop back under itself to make the grade,” the complaint adds.

The plaintiffs say the project also threatens to further pollute the air quality of a region “already plagued by the worst air quality in the nation.”

“Refining Bakken crude emits high levels of volatile organic compound emissions that lead to ozone pollution, which in turn causes respiratory illnesses such as asthma,” Forsyth told Courthouse News.

“The refining of tar sands crude, which is far dirtier than local crudes, will result in higher emissions of greenhouse gases, nitrogen, sulfur and toxic metals,” she added.

Moreover, restarting the refinery and processing 60 million barrels of fossil fuels a year will elevate greenhouse gas emissions in the region and interfere with California’s goal of reducing such emissions, the groups say.

They claim the EIR’s analysis of greenhouse gas emissions is “riddled with flaws” because instead of discussing mitigation measures to curb emissions, it assumed that the refinery’s emissions will be “reduced to zero” by participating in the state’s cap-and-trade program, and thus concluded that “these emissions are not significant.”

“The EIR also unlawfully underestimates greenhouse gas emissions, ignoring emissions from the combustion of end products produced from the imported crude,” the complaint states.

After Kern County released an initial study of the project in September 2013, the Air District commented that using 2007 as the baseline to analyze impacts to air quality was improper because the refinery had not refined crude since 2008, according to the complaint.

The groups say the draft environmental report released for public comment on May 22 this year did not correct this error.

“The draft EIR also omitted fundamental information necessary to evaluate the EIR’s conclusions, including underlying assumptions and calculations for the EIR’s emissions analysis, data concerning the properties of Bakken crude, and an objective description of the project’s crude slate,” the complaint states.

On June 13, the groups’ attorneys asked for the information not included in the draft report and an extension to the 45-day comment period, but the county denied both requests.

When the county issued its final EIR in August, the groups say, they objected to “new disclosures that the public had not had a chance to review,” including its flawed analysis of the probability of a train accident, and demanded that it be revised.

Several prominent environmental scientists submitted comments criticizing the report’s treatment of toxic air emissions and its failure to include “emergency flaring events” in emissions calculations, but the county ignored their input and approved the report 13 days after it was released, the complaint states.

Kern County Counsel Theresa Goldner defended the project.

“The Kern County Board of Supervisors carefully and thoughtfully considered the EIR and all public comments and approved the report after a full and complete public process,” Goldner told Courthouse News.

“We will vigorously oppose this action.”

Paramount did not immediately return requests for comment.

The environmentalists seek declaratory judgment that Kern County violated CEQA by authorizing the refinery expansion project without performing adequate environmental analysis.

They ask that the project approvals and the environmental impact report be vacated until the defendants prepare a new environmental study that complies with CEQA.

They also want an injunction preventing the defendants from carrying out any part of the project until they fulfill all of the CEQA requirements.

They are represented by Earthjustice attorneys Elizabeth Forsyth and co-counsel Wendy Park of San Francisco.

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