Regulators in California's Central Valley are Allowing the Oil Industry to Pollute Groundwater

Friday, August 28, 2015

Legal Petition Filed Challenging the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board's Weak Oversight of Oil and Gas Wastewater Disposal

Clean Water Action has filed a legal petition, challenging the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board's (the Regional Board) failure to enforce water quality laws. The filing cites evidence that the Regional Board is allowing oil and gas companies to pollute groundwater currently being used for drinking and irrigation. The petition, filed by Earthjustice on Clean Water's behalf, demands that the State Water Resources Control Board (the State Board) intervene and immediately close two facilities, Fee 34 and Race Track Hill, that Regional Board staff determined are polluting groundwater East of Bakersfield.  Despite the staff's findings and recommendations of immediate action, the Regional Board is allowing the facilities to continue polluting until 2018.

"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."

The stakes are especially high in Kern County, where groundwater provides 75% of public water supply and 43% of supply for the county's $7 billion agriculture industry. An additional 54,000 Kern County residents rely on domestic wells, which are not regulated for water quality, making them more susceptible to contamination.

Valley Water Management (Valley), the operator of the "Fee 34" and "Race Track Hill" facilities, has been dumping toxic wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits since the 1930's. According to Regional Board records, Valley currently 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.

On July 30, the Regional Board issued an enforcement order, after finding a large plume of wastewater, containing contaminants such as salt, chlorides, boron and known carcinogens such as benzene spreading out from the Race Track Hill facility East of Bakersfield. According to Valley's records nearly 200 million gallons of wastewater are disposed in Race Track Hill annually. In addition to groundwater pollution from 27 unlined pits, Valley also runs a "spray field" in which oil field wastewater (also known as "produced water") is discharged on a hillside nearby through a sprinkler system. Board staff found a high likelihood that the spray field is likely contributing to surface runoff directly into Cottonwood Creek, a tributary of the Kern River, which is a major source of drinking water and recharges groundwater used for irrigation and drinking in the area.

The order, and Clean Water Action's legal challenge also covered the "Fee 34" facility where Valley operates 6 pits overlying high quality groundwater. Board Staff found that these pits are leaking roughly 700 gallons of toxic wastewater daily into high quality groundwater. Regional Board staff recommended the immediate closure of the spray field and a deadline of December 2016 for the pits at both facilities to either meet water quality laws or close. Despite these findings and staff recommendation, the Regional Board amended the order to allow for continued discharge until 2018 and did not allow for public comment on the revised order.

“The Regional Board’s vote to side with oil companies will have a devastating effect on the community. The dumping of toxic oil production wastewater into unlined pits threatens the health of families and dwindling groundwater resources,” said Oscar Espino-Padron, associate attorney at Earthjustice. “Families in the Central Valley should not have to wait until 2018 to have access to clean water.”

In addition to the legal petition, a coalition of local organizations sent a letter to the Governor's office, Water Board and other agencies requesting that they intervene and close these facilities.

Cesar Campos, Director of the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) said, "The Regional Water Board failed to protect water quality and human health here. All the evidence points to contamination, yet the decision from the Board disregards that data, and instead acts to benefit the polluter."

Oil companies produce roughly 130 billion gallons of wastewater annually and have routinely used unlined pits to dispose of significant, yet unknown quantities. A 2014 Clean Water Action report (available at: helped spur increased oversight and an ongoing investigation by the Regional Board has revealed that there are over 700 active pits in the Central Valley, nearly 200 of which are operating illegally without any permits. Hundreds of the pits are operating with permits issued decades ago, prior to the passage of modern water quality laws and regulations. There are nearly 400 more pits that are classified as "inactive." The legal challenge came one day after the Assembly Appropriations held SB 248 (Pavley) a bill that would have phased out unlined disposal pits. Earlier this month the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST) released a scientific study recommending that unlined pits should be prohibited. There are multiple confirmed cases of groundwater contamination from unlined pits in California and throughout the country. Numerous states, including Texas, Kentucky and Ohio have already phased out the use of unlined pits for disposal entirely.

Andrew Grinberg
1 415-298-8314