California: Environmental Groups File Legal Challenge to Central Valley Water Board's Industry-Friendly Guidelines for Oil Wastewater Pits

Monday, May 8, 2017

OAKLAND, CALIF. (May 8, 2017) — California environmental groups are challenging the adoption of industry-friendly rules that would allow fossil fuel companies to dump oil and gas wastewater into open and unlined pits in the Central Valley, putting precious drinking water and community health at risk.

Clean Water Action – through its legal counsel, Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group – in partnership with Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the Center for Environmental Health, has filed a legal petition with the California State Water Resources Board over the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s adoption of “general orders” that allow the primitive dumping practice to continue.

“A water quality control board is supposed to know, water quality, for the benefit of the people of the state,” said Keith Nakatani, oil and gas program manager for Clean Water Action in California. “Yet, the Central Valley Board’s orders are far too favorable for oil companies, and continue a decades-old practice of cheaply and harmfully dumping toxic wastewater in pits. It’s time to be more protective of our precious drinking water for future generations.”

The Regional Board’s general orders set the rules for how the hundreds of unpermitted pits in the region can operate. The orders were adopted last month after years of failure to regulate these facilities. The petition names four specific failures as grounds for the State Water Board to intervene:

- CEQA. The orders exempt existing pits from environmental reviews under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA). The petition contends CEQA must be applied, as wastewater disposal pits are known to have significant impacts, including contaminating groundwater and air quality in numerous cases.

- Trade secrets. The orders allow oil companies to hide from the public the identities and quantities of chemicals used in oil wells and detected in wastewater by protecting those potential toxins as “trade secrets.”  

- Undermining existing state regulations. State regulations issued by the Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) prohibit wastewater from wells that have undergone well stimulation treatments (including fracking) from being dumped in pits. The orders, however, illegally undercut DOGGR's regulations by potentially allowing oil companies to violate this requirement and discharge wastewater from stimulated wells into pits.

- Anti-degradation. The orders fail to satisfy the state’s anti-degradation policy and give the industry a free pass to degrade high-quality groundwater without proving that it is in the best interest of the people of California.

“People have a right to safe, clean drinking water,” said Briana Mordick, a senior scientist with NRDC. “Independent scientific experts in California have stated unequivocally that disposal of harmful wastewater in pits should stop. It’s time for California’s state agencies to stop putting the interests of Big Oil and Gas before the interests of public health.”

“By declaring the ponds as exempt from environmental review, the Regional Board failed to analyze alternatives to the practice, injecting or recycling the wastewater, and considering the impacts on the dirty, unhealthy air of Kern County” said Bill Allayaud, representing EWG.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board adopted these regulations, called "General Orders," on April 6. Challenges to the regulations must be filed with the State Water Resources Control Board within 30 days of adoption.

A copy of the petition is available for PDF iconfor download here with a copy of the petition's PDF iconattached exhibits here


Notes to editors:

Clean Water Action first chronicled the oil and gas industry’s widespread use of unlined pit disposal in California in its 2015 report, “In The Pits,” finding 1,165 unlined oil wastewater pits, primarily in Kern County, 803 of which either do not have a permit to operate or have out-of-date permits that were issued before current water quality rules were adopted.

Clean Water Action and its partners settled the first ever Prop 65 lawsuit in July 2016, against Valley Water Management, the single largest operator of unlined oil and gas wastewater pits, for discharges of the cancer-causing chemicals benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene and toluene into a drinking water source just east of Bakersfield, Calif. Under the settlement, Valley agreed to limit the discharge of chemicals listed under Prop 65, make significant upgrades to its facilities and pay $200,000 in penalties.

In some cases, regulators have identified groundwater near unlined pits that has been contaminated with salts, metals and organic compounds. California oil and gas companies produce roughly 130 billion gallons of toxic wastewater annually.

In July 2015 the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), in its independent study on well stimulation, recommended that oil and gas wastewater containing harmful chemicals should not be disposed of into unlined pits. The settlement, if properly implemented and if Valley’s proposed treatment is effective, would bring the two facilities into compliance with this recommendation by 2018. The proposed general orders by the Central Valley Water Board fail to meet this scientific standard and fall well short of the recommended level of water quality protection.

Additional resources on oil and gas wastewater pits in California:

·       Map of oil and gas wastewater pits in California. Courtesy of FracTracker Alliance

·       Additional resources on wastewater pits from Clean Water Fund and Clean Water Action

·       “Still in the Pits” March 2016 report

·       California Council on Science and Technology (CCST): “An Independent Sciencific Assessment of Well Stimulation in California”  Vol 2, Ch. 2 includes information on disposal pits.


About Clean Water Action

Since our founding during the campaign to pass the landmark Clean Water Act in 1972, Clean Water Action has worked to win strong health and environmental protections by bringing issue expertise, solution-oriented thinking and people power to the table. The organization has 50,000 members in California. Visit the website at and follow on Twitter at @cleanh2oactionca.

Matt Davis, California Communications Director at Clean Water Action