VENTURA, Calif. (CN) - Ventura County's approval of 19 new oil wells near Los Padres National Forest will threaten California condors and endangered steelhead trout, environmentalists claim in court.
The county approved 19 new wells along the Santa Paula Canyon Trail, between Ojai and Santa Paula, on Oct. 20, by 3-2 vote, despite a history of environmental violations at wells already there, a 37-year-old environmental impact statement and public opposition "from nearly 1,000 hikers and local residents and overwhelming expert scientific testimony," Los Padres Forestwatch says in its Nov. 17 complaint in Ventura County Court.
The Center for Biological Diversity and Citizens for Responsible Oil & Gas are co-plaintiffs, and named California Resources Corp., Vintage Production California, and Seneca Resources Corp. as real parties in interest.
Ventura County's approval will spoil the popular hiking trail and pose a significant risk of oil spills, the environmental groups say.
"The county fast-tracked the permit application," said Los Padres Forestwatch executive director Jeff Kuyper. He seeks writ of mandate setting aside the approval and ordering a thorough environmental impact report.
The Ventura County counsel's office did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.
The mountainous Santa Paula Canyon Trail is a gateway to Los Padres National Forest, and provides critical habitat for several "rare and imperiled" species, including California condors and the endangered Southern steelhead. The trail by waterfalls, cliffs and unique geologic formations is used by 100,000 residents and visitors a year, Kuyper said.
He called it "one of the natural gems of Southern California."
Seventeen oil wells already are operating in the area. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors approved the new ones after a heated 4-hour hearing.
The environmentalists say the county based its decision on an environmental impact report from 1978 that did not consider the return of condors in the intervening decades.
"They were sliding toward extinction when the last report was done, back in the '70s," Kuyper said.
Oil drilling at the 813-acre project site was approved in 1971, and a conditional use permit was issued. The permit was modified in 1978 to allow more drilling, at up to 30 wells. After Vintage Production California applied for a modified permit in 2013 (California Resources Corp. later took over), the county merely added a 9-page addendum to the 1978 environmental impact report, rather than conducting a new study, the groups say.
Not only does that addendum fail to consider changes since 1978, several actions required by the 1978 report were never completed, according to the lawsuit.
To prevent oil spills, the 1978 EIR required a suspension bridge be built under the main pipeline carrying and installation of automatic shutoff valves. That pipeline over Santa Paula Creek now bows in the middle, Kuyper said, and no bridge or shutoff valves have been added.
A rupture caused by corrosion - similar to the rupture at Refugio State Beach in May - would hurt protected wildlife, pollute water, and set off an environmental catastrophe, Kuyper said. He called it "just a disaster waiting to happen."
A follow-up report in 1982 required the Santa Paula Canyon Trail be re-routed away from the oil wells. That was not done either, according to the complaint.
New drilling and pumping would spoil views for hikers and create noise and petroleum odors, the groups say. The impact would be even greater on the condor, the largest North American land bird, with a wingspan of nearly to 10 feet.
Only 23 California condors survived in 1982, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. By 1987, all of them had been taken out of the wild and placed into a captive breeding program. Fish & Wildlife began reintroducing them into the wild in 1992.
Because condors were removed from the wild in the 1980s, the impact that oil wells would have on them has not even been considered for decades. A pair of condors has set up a nest less than 2 miles from the site, according to the complaint.
"This condor nest is extremely significant because this is the first nest in the history of the California Condor Reintroduction Program where two parents hatched from eggs laid in the wild reared a chick that was also hatched in the wild, heralding a second generation of completely wild condors," the complaint states.
The Southern steelhead also is an endangered species. "What we don't want to see is more oil wells and industrial development intruding on the habitat," Kuyper said.
A new EIR would offer a thorough explanation of circumstances that have arisen since 1978, Kuyper said, and should include better mitigation measures which, this time, should be completed. The oil companies would pay for the report, Kuyper said.
Drilling has not yet begun, and Kuyper said he hopes it will not until the lawsuit is resolved.
The environmental groups are represented by Amy Minteer, with Chatten-Brown & Carstens, of Hermosa Beach.
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