News | October 3, 2019

Federal Studies: Oil Waste Fluid Contaminated California Groundwater

Oil industry waste fluids containing benzene and other toxic chemicals have migrated into California’s groundwater through multiple pathways at sites in Kern County, west of Bakersfield, federal experts have discovered.

A new U.S. Geological Survey report, published in September’s Environmental Geosciences, confirms findings in previous USGS studies showing how toxic waste fluid from California’s oil industry has contaminated multiple underground water sources in the Central Valley.

Results indicate that large numbers of water supply wells, including wells currently used for irrigation, contain chemicals that have migrated from oil and gas operations. Water samples from the Fruitvale and Lost Hills areas were found to contain hydrocarbons like benzene, ethylbenzene and xylenes. In two instances the levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, were higher than the safe limit for drinking water.

“The Central Valley, particularly Kern County, ranks number one for numerous environmental injustices, including having the worst air quality in the nation. To add insult to injury, now we have confirmation of something we suspected all along: Wastewater from oil companies is contaminating our groundwater,” said Gustavo Aguirre Jr., Kern County coordinator for the Central California Environmental Justice Network. “The number of spills that occurred recently are just the tip of the iceberg of a problem that we are not willing to tolerate anymore. Gov. Newsom must ban fracking and extreme methods of extraction now and set a timeline and plan to transition from fossil fuels.”

“These shocking findings confirm that the oil industry is contaminating California’s precious underground water,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “The dirty truth about the oil industry is out, and our state should be cracking down on these polluters. Instead of letting oil companies foul our water, Gov. Newsom should start a just transition to a safer and cleaner future.”

The studies stem from a process that began in July 2015, when the California State Water Resources Control Board found that 107 oil and gas fields in the state are high priority for studying their adverse impacts on groundwater quality.

Over the past three years, the USGS has worked with the state board and regional water boards to test groundwater in and near the top-priority Fruitvale, Lost Hills, South Belridge and North Belridge oilfields in western Kern County.

The most recent study identified two pathways for pollution migrating to groundwater. First, contaminants dumped by the oil industry into unlined wastewater pits have trickled down through the soil into groundwater below. Second, researchers found “direct evidence” of waste fluids injected deep underground migrating outward from oil-industry disposal wells into surrounding aquifers.

The findings contradict repeated assurances from state regulators and the oil industry that oil and gas fluids would remain in place and not migrate to nearby groundwater sources.

In an earlier study, samples from multiple water wells were found to contain high levels of radium, a radioactive element found in oil-industry wastewater. Eighteen percent of water wells sampled near the Fruitvale, Lost Hills and South Belridge oilfields contained unsafe levels of the chemical.

About Center for Biological Diversity
The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN) has been promoting environmental justice in the SJV since 2000. Our mission is to preserve our natural resources by seeking to minimize or eliminate environmental degradation in the SJV. CCEJN focuses on advancing community resilience in disadvantaged communities by increasing the level of recognition of adverse health effects caused by pollution and serving as a hub for environmental activism in the Central Valley.

SOURCE: Center for Biological Diversity