Calif. Gives Water Polluters a Pass, Greens Say

     SACRAMENTO (CN) – California’s Central Valley water board lets oil and gas companies pollute groundwater used for drinking and irrigation, environmentalists say in a petition to the State Water Resources Control Board.
     Clean Water Action petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to review the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s decision on oil well wastewater discharges at two disposal facilities in Kern County.
     Clean Water Action asked the State Water Board to intervene and immediately close two facilities, Fee 34 and Race Track Hill, because the regional board is allowing the facilities to continue polluting until 2018, according to the petition.
     “Despite the extreme drought, and ample evidence of harm, the regional board continues to allow the oil industry to pollute groundwater,” said Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action.
     “The misguided decision by the regional board is particularly egregious, as it ignores science and its own expert staff, instead succumbing to political pressure from the oil industry. The state board must intervene to protect our water,” Grinberg said.
     Groundwater provides 75 percent of the public water in Kern County and 43 percent of the county’s $6.7 billion agriculture industry.
     About 54,000 county residents rely on domestic wells that are not regulated for quality, making them more susceptible to contamination, Clean Water says.
     Valley Water Management, operator of the Fee 34 and Race Track Hill facilities, has been dumping toxic wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits since the 1950s, Clean Water claims.
     Valley Water Management operates 356 active pits and is likely the largest surface discharger of oil and gas waste in the state, although data has been sorely lacking as enforcement has been minimal, the environmental group says.
     The regional water board staff found that wastewater discharges from Race Track Hill east of Bakersfield contains contaminants such as salt and boron and known carcinogens such as benzene.
     The staff found that the six pits at Fee 34 leak 700 gallons of toxic wastewater a day into high-quality groundwater.
     Valley Water Management also runs a “spray field,” where oilfield wastewater is discharged on a hillside through a sprinkler system. The regional water board staff found a high likelihood that the spray field is contributing to surface runoff directly into a tributary of the Kern River, which is a major source of drinking water and recharges groundwater used for irrigation and drinking. The Kern River also is popular for trout fishing.
     Based on these findings, the executive officer of the Regional Board issued a tentative cease and desist order on May 20, prohibiting Valley Water Management from continuing to discharge wastewater unlawfully and requiring remediation plans.
     But the regional board “inexplicably reversed course” and adopted a substantially modified final order without providing any written explanation for the changes or giving the public a chance to comment, Clean Water says.
     Under the July 30 final order, the regional board no longer required that Valley Water Management stop spraying wastewater at Race Track Hill by Aug. 15. Instead, the final order prohibited discharging to surface impoundments or land there by Jan. 1, 2018, unless discharges comply with waste water discharge rules.
     The final order “permits Valley Water to continue engaging in the spraying of discharge wastewater – which is a confirmed threat to other water sources and exacerbates pollution of groundwater – and is not required to achieve compliance with law until 2018,” Clean Water says.
     It calls the board’s decision “inappropriate, given the overwhelming evidence before the regional board confirming that Valley Water’s unlawful wastewater disposal practices have contaminated groundwater and threaten to pollute residential water supply wells and the Cottonwood Creek and Kern River.”
     The regional board’s vote to side with oil companies will have a devastating effect on the community, said Oscar Espino-Padron, associate attorney at Earthjustice, which filed the petition on Clean Water’s behalf.
     “The dumping of toxic oil production wastewater into unlined pits threatens the health of families and dwindling groundwater resources. Families in the Central Valley should not have to wait until 2018 to have access to clean water,” Espino-Padron said.
     In addition to the legal petition, a coalition of organizations sent a letter to Gov. Jerry Brown’s office, the state water board and other agencies, asking them to intervene and close the two facilities.
     The regional water board did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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