BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (AP) - Inspections by water officials have found numerous oil-industry wastewater pits operating without permits across Central California.
Oil producers have been dumping chemical-laden wastewater into as many as 300 unlined, shallow troughs in Kern County, according to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
More than one-third of the region’s active disposal pits are operating without permission, officials said.
The pits are a common sight on the west side of Bakersfield’s oil patch. In some cases, waste facilities contain 40 or more pits, arranged in neat rows.
Kern County, which is heavily agricultural, accounts for at least 80 percent of California’s oil production.
The water forced out of the ground during oil operations is heavily saline and often contains benzene and other naturally occurring but toxic compounds.
Doug Patteson, an official with the water board in Fresno, said that officials have not yet determined how many of the unauthorized pits held waste from hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, an intensive form of production that now accounts for half of the new wells drilled in California.
Even the unauthorized pits holding ordinary oil-industry wastewater “still are a threat to water quality,” Patteson said Friday. “It is a priority and something we are working on diligently.”
Tupper Hull, a spokesman for the Western States Petroleum Association, an industry group based in Sacramento, said none of the waste in the disposal pits at issue came from fracking. No tests have yet found any groundwater contamination from the disposal of oil-industry wastewater, Hull said.
“Time and time again, when we look at these practices carefully, none of this has threatened or imperiled drinking water supplies,” he said.
Kern County farmer Tom Frantz has tracked the open-air, unlined disposal pits for years. That includes a series of pits he found this winter where oil-slicked wastewater regularly spilled out of the pits into a gulley, and from there to a Kern County river, Frantz said Friday.
The biggest pits have long been visible from the air and on Google Earth, and Frantz was skeptical the state would compel oil companies to take any substantive action now.
“If there’s a danger to groundwater, which I believe there is, and they’re not permitted, they should be shut down instantly,” Frantz said. “But I don’t see that happening.”
Officials said the water board expects to issue as many as 200 enforcement orders, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday (https://lat.ms/1E4ilSh ).
This winter, an Associated Press investigation detailed state records showing 2,500 times in which the state had authorized oil companies to operate in protected water aquifers. That included more than 500 times the state had authorized oil companies to dump wastewater into federally protected underground water sources. State regulators last summer shut down nine of those wastewater-injection wells.
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