In California, regulators have not caught up with the rest of the country when it comes to oil drilling waste management.
In most states, it’s illegal to dump waste water from drilling sites onto the open earth without any lining. But in California, that’s precisely what oil companies do: they dump gallons upon gallons of toxic substances into “percolation ponds,” where the substances can seep through the earth into the groundwater.
According to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, for every gallon of oil there’s 12 gallons of toxic waste water, which gets dumped into these ponds.
There are miles of ponds dotting the landscape right near Fred Starrh’s farm, where he and his family used to have access to fresh groundwater for the crops. Now, that water, contaminated by the nearby oil fields, is all but useless. The ponds themselves are owned by Aera Energy, which is owned by Shell Global and ExxonMobil Energy. Years ago, Starrh filed a suit against Aera, claiming that the company annihilated his farm’s water source through years of negligent dumping.
“They had a 12-inch pipe that was running water continuously, this black, oily water,” said Starrh. “They had about a mile of ponds.” He continued, “We were not able to pull up water to irrigate our crops, which we are desperately short of all the time. So that’s the bottom line.”
Not only is Starrh unable to maximize his usage of the groundwater; the toxic chemicals being pumped into the earth are dangerous. Studies have found traces of benzene, xylenes, ethylbenzene, boron, toluene and strontium. This is unnerving, as nearly 1,086 ponds exist between Monterey and Kern County.
Lawmakers Miss Their Chance
Lawmakers had a chance to pass a new tax law that would have raised $140 million per year to address the pandemic of water contamination, but they failed to do so. In California, the problem affects nearly 360,000 residents, who are exposed to water that doesn’t meet compliance standards for various chemicals, including:
- Other pollutants
San Joaquin Valley is the epicenter of the water contamination problem, but most counties are affected. Out of 58 counties, 38 have at least one water source that is contaminated.
Throwing out the “Safe and Affordable Drinking Water Act,” Governor Jerry Brown and legislators decided to pull $5 million from the general fund to address lead contamination at child day care centers. They’ve also decided to put $23.5 million toward “safe drinking water actions later in this legislative session.” This is a far cry from the original $140 million.
The tax law could still be enacted in the future, according to Governor Brown’s office. H.D. Palmer, a spokesperson for the governor’s office of finance, said the following: “The Legislature has indicated a commitment to continue discussions this summer.” He continued, “They recognize that this is a very important issue that will take some more time to work through.”
If implemented, the law would have taxed individuals $11.40 per year, yielding $110 million in revenue. The extra $30 million would come from taxes on farmers’ use of fertilizer and other products.
The stakes are rising every year, as experts say hundreds of water sources throughout the state contain a class of chemicals called TCP, which has been designated “a probable carcinogen” by the EPA. According to Paul Tratnyek, a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Health at Oregon Health and Science University, TCP is an extraordinarily toxic chemical. “Even the slightest amount of TCP in the water would be considered to be a potential health effect,” he said. The contamination is particularly bad in Arvin, where the TCP count is six times above the “acceptable” amount.
As for the “percolation ponds,” New Jersey is the only other state that allows such a negligent practice. New Jersey doesn’t have nearly as much oil drilling as California. Even Texas instituted rules barring the practice of unlined storage ponds. As it stands, California oil companies are dumping 4.8 million gallons of this toxic water into the ponds every single day.
After years of legal battles, Starrh’s suit failed to make any substantial changes. He received an undisclosed amount in a settlement after 13 years of legal back-and-forth. “It’s so strange to see how power can cause a situation to exist that we all know has been wrong,” said Starrh. He continued, “The agencies who are supposed to be watching it are ignoring it.”