California is drought-stricken and for years oil companies have pumped wastewater from their operations into aquifers that were deemed fit for human consumption.
As groundwater supplies are increasingly strained, state regulators explicitly gave permission for companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers dedicated to drinking or irrigation.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported hundreds of oil companies inject a blend of briny water, hydrocarbons and trace chemicals into lower-quality aquifers that could be used with more intense treatment.
California’s Central Valley, a region renowned for its agriculture, is pumping increasingly expensive and potentially contaminated groundwater to sustain communities and their economy during the crippling drought.
“It is an unfolding catastrophe, and it’s essential that all oil and gas wastewater injection into underground drinking water stop immediately,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.
Though the problem has been developing over decades, last summer state officials shut down 11 waste-injection wells in Kern County, California, over fears they could contaminate groundwater supplies feeding homes and farms.
State officials say drinking-water wells show no contamination, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency is threatening to take control of regulating the waste-injection wells. The state has to tell the EPA how they’ll fix the issue before Feb. 6.
“If there are wells having a direct impact on drinking water, we need to shut them down now,” said Jared Blumenfeld, regional administrator for the EPA. “Safe drinking water is only going to become more in demand.”
Poor record keeping and outright negligence have made the issue all the more fraught. In 1983, EPA officials signed an agreement giving California’s oil field regulators the responsibility of enforcing the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The agreement listed, by name, aquifers where oil companies could legally inject leftover water with a permit. If state regulators wanted to add any aquifers to the list, they would need EPA’s approval.
However, Steven Bohlen, the division’s new supervisor said there were two signed copies of the agreement. The eleven aquifers listed as exempt on one copy weren’t included on the other.
“We cannot tell, nor can the EPA, which version is correct,” Bohlen said.
In all, 464 wells injected wastewater into aquifers that were supposed to be protected. That includes 94 wells drilled into the 11 aquifers that the state considered exempt, and the EPA didn’t.
Either way, the condition of California’s groundwater is a serious concern for everyone in the Central Valley.
Mike Hopkins, 67, blames oil companies for tainting the aquifer that used to feed his cherry trees outside of Bakersfield, California. High levels of salt and boron were found in the water feeding his cherry trees, which killed many of them.
“That’s what we do for a living — we’re farmers, we grow things,” said Hopkins, managing partner of Palla Farms. “If we don’t have water, your property’s worth zero.”