SACRAMENTO (CN) - Corruption among California water regulators and their refusal to enforce the law threatens the state's aquifers with waste injections from fracking operations, state senators heard Tuesday during a joint hearing of the natural resources and water and environmental committees.
Pollution violations have gone unpunished for decades and an aging permit process has allowed underground wastewater injections to continue due to lax oversight, said John Laird, secretary of the California Natural Resources Agency.
Problems with enforcement and prevention of aquifer pollution can be attributed to poor monitoring that began two to three decades ago, Laird said.
"You're dealing with something that went on for 22 years, you don't have the chance to change it overnight," Laird said.
"This is something that should have been done over the last 30 years, and what we're doing is sort of getting on it, and having to systematically undo or recheck all these things that were done a long time ago."
Officials from the State Water Board and Department of Conservation detailed a confusing and outdated permit process in which the state allows oil companies to inject wastewater from their operations into underground aquifers.
State Sen. Hannah Beth-Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, said that corruption in the permit process is endemic.
"The smoking email, if you will, ... talks about some of the people granting these permits, [who] actually had a financial interest in the development of oil and gas and who were encouraging the industry to make contributions to his wife's nonprofit organization. If this isn't corruption, I don't know what is. And this has been going on for years," Jackson said.
State regulators were spurred into action after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency alerted them of the state's noncompliance with federal aquifer protections. Twelve wells were shut down last week to test for groundwater pollution.
On Tuesday, officials promised to overhaul the permit and monitoring process of the wastewater injections.
"The division is undergoing an extensive review of all underground injection wells while prioritizing the review of those injection wells that are at greatest risk of contaminating aquifers that are likely to be used for water supply," Laird said.
He said that 23 wells have been shut down since 2014, and oil companies have promised to test injection wells that are near drinking aquifers.
In fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, wastewater and chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure to crack rocks and allow oil and natural gas to be extracted. Environmentalists say the process can pollute pristine aquifers by allowing the petrochemicals and wastewater to penetrate them, and could even contribute to earthquakes. Because the process is so new, no long-term studies have been done.
Jonathan Bishop, chief deputy director of the State Water Resources Control Board, said that 12 wells have been closed in the heart of the state's fracking operations in Kern County, but that that tests have shown no contamination of aquifers.
Notices of violations were issued to seven operators for not submitting information to the board - but no fines have been issued.
California has nearly 50,000 underground injection wells and more than 2,000 are near aquifers that are usable sources of water, officials said. Wells near freshwater aquifers will be the focus of the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. A study is expected in the coming months.
State Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside County, told regulators not to "over-regulate" the oil and energy industry, and said that so far despite the lax oversight, no aquifers have been polluted.
"While I agree that we should have parameters in place, I hope that we don't over-regulate this industry to the point where we cannot have our natural resources here that are actually more green for the environment because it means we import less gas and oil to our region. We also keep a number of people employed, especially in Kern County, where a lot of this fracking, if you will, goes on," Stone said.
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