Water regulators' plan fails to protect groundwater from oil companies’ toxic discharges into open pits

Thursday, February 5, 2015

After decades of failing to enforce state laws meant to protect California's groundwater from oil industry discharges, regulators have announced a new plan to oversee oil and gas wastewater disposal into open pits, also known as sumps. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (the Regional Board) announced Thursday that it will begin to more actively oversee this disposal method. Clean Water Action said the plan does not go far enough and called for a statewide prohibition on oil sumps.

"It is time to stop letting oil companies dump their toxic waste into open pits. The Central Valley is already experiencing degradation and overdraft of vital aquifers, and allowing continued disposal into sumps will only make our statewide water situation worse," said Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action. "Rather than simply increasing oversight, state and regional water regulators should prioritize the health of our water supply and communities and prohibit this disposal method once and for all. The state is aware of unpermitted discharge currently threatening groundwater and air, yet has not acted to stop illegal activity. This is unacceptable.”

Tom Frantz, a Kern County almond grower was encouraged by news of the Regional Board’s announcement, but agreed that plan does not go far enough. “It is certainly appropriate today to take a stronger regulatory approach towards the disposal of waste water connected with oil production. We don't need to leave all our mess for future generations to clean up."

More than 130 billion gallons of wastewater are generated by California oil and gas wells every year. Also known as produced water, this massive wastestream is a mix of naturally occurring formation water, combined with fluids used in drilling, fracking, acidizing or enhanced oil recovery processes as well as residual oil. Produced water varies in quality depending on the formation, but is often high in salts, harmful chemicals such as benzene and boron, and may contain radioactive materials. The majority of pits are in Kern County and take on wastewater from oil fields such as the Belridge  and Lost Hills oil fields, the two most heavily fracked fields in the state.

In a public presentation on Thursday, Regional Board staff announced that they have completed an inventory, identifying over 900 sumps, 600 of which are actively used by oil companies. The number is significantly higher than the 432 active pits previously reported by the state. Most of the pits are unlined and uncovered, allowing wastewater to leach into the ground and evaporate into the air. Hundreds of the pits have operated without permits or oversight for decades and currently 383 are unregulated. The Regional Board is now working to inspect all the sumps and will begin issuing enforcement orders to sump operators to either close their facilities or comply with stricter oversight rules. The Board expects this effort to take about two years.

Clean Water Action applauded the increased oversight of oil wastewater practices, but said the plan falls short of protecting Central Valley water quality. In November, Clean Water released In the Pits: Oil and Gas Wastewater Disposal into Unlined Pits and the Threat to California's Water and Air. The report exposed decades of lax enforcement of water laws and documented massive plumes of wastewater migrating from disposal sites in Kern County. At one facility, the Regional Board had monitoring results that documented a plume of wastewater that had migrated approximately a mile from the disposal site. Additionally, citizen-conducted air sampling detected  24 different volatile organic compounds (VOC's) and the greenhouse gas methane off gassing into the air from the chemical laced wastewater. In September 2014, Clean Water Action requested closure of all pits in a letter to the Regional Board. In January, 18 groups from across the state filed a similar request to the State Water Resources Control Board to intervene and create a statewide policy that prohibits disposal into sumps.

The heightened oversight on disposal sumps comes during increased scrutiny on injection of oil field wastewater, another common disposal technique. Last summer the Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) shut down about a dozen wells that were found to be injecting wastewater into underground sources of drinking water. The state is currently investigating the issue and will release plans to the US Environmental Protection Agency for addressing the problems on February 6.

The In the Pits report can be accessed here.

Letter to Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board September 5, 2014

Letter to State Water Resources Control Board January 27, 2015


Clean Water Action is a national organization, founded in 1972, that has 55,000 members in California and over one million nationwide. We empower people to take action to protect water resources, build healthy communities, and make democracy work.


Andrew Grinberg
1 415-298-8314