By Mike Gaworecki
The fallout from the ongoing review of California’s deeply flawed Underground Injection Control program continues as new documents reveal that state regulators are investigating more than 500 injection wells for potentially dumping oil industry wastewater into aquifers protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act as well as state law.
Last July, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) ordered an emergency shutdown of 11 wastewater injection wells in California. In October, nine of the wells were confirmed to have been illegally dumping wastewater into protected aquifers.
Now a letter from Steve Bohlen, the State Oil and Gas Supervisor for California’s Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), sent to the EPA on August 18, 2014 but just revealed via a Freedom of Information Act request, shows that the problem is much more widespread than previously disclosed to the public.
A copy of the letter was shared with DeSmogBlog by the Center for Biological Diversity. “EPA has confirmed to us and to the San Francisco Chronicle that Steve Bohlen’s list shows 532 wells believed to be injecting into protected aquifers,” according to Patrick Sullivan, a spokesperson for the CBD.
Under federal law, any aquifer with water that contains less than 10,000 parts-per-million of total dissolved solids (such as salt and other minerals) is protected. Sullivan told DeSmog that the 532 wells are all injecting wastewater into water that is either cleaner than 10,000 ppm TDS or with unknown TDS. CBD has mapped all of the injection wells in question.
“We know that at least 170 of these wells were drilled into aquifers with TDS of below 3,000 — which means they are suitable for drinking water,” Sullivan says. “Hundreds more are injecting into aquifers below 10,000 TDS, which is water that likely could be made usable.”
In response to the revelations, CBD sent a letter to the EPA demanding an immediate shutdown of all oil industry injection wells in the state that are injecting wastewater into protected aquifers.
“Because the state has failed to protect our water or uphold the law, action by the EPA Administrator is legally required,” the letter states. “In the midst of an unprecedented drought and when so many Californians lack access to safe, clean drinking water, it is outrageous to allow contamination of drinking and irrigation water to continue.”
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, which has also reviewed the data provided by DOGGR to the EPA, there are no signs yet that any sources of drinking water have actually been tainted, but the EPA is poised to step in if necessary because the state has had decades to fix the problem and has failed to do so:
Oil companies in drought-ravaged California have, for years, pumped wastewater from their operations into aquifers that had been clean enough for people to drink.
They did it with explicit permission from state regulators, who were supposed to protect the increasingly strained groundwater supplies from contamination.
Instead, the state allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation, according to data reviewed by The Chronicle.
So far, tests of nearby drinking-water wells show no contamination, state officials say. But the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which helped uncover the practice, is threatening to seize control of regulating the waste-injection wells, a job it has left to California officials for over 30 years. The state faces a Feb. 6 deadline to tell the EPA how it plans to fix the problem and prevent it from happening again.
Oil industry wastewater is extremely briny (saltier even than seawater — so salty it can kill plants) and typically contains a variety of toxic chemicals associated with the oil production process. Given that hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking) has been used by half of all new wells drilled in California over the past decade, this wastewater is also increasingly likely to contain fracking chemicals that have been linked to cancer and other severe health problems.
Given that California is entering into a fourth year of epic drought, it would certainly seem prudent to rein in the oil industry’s waste stream once and for all.
“California’s drinking water aquifers shouldn’t be garbage dumps for the oil industry,” Kassie Siegel, director of CBD’s Climate Law Institute, said in a statement. “It’s legally required and just common sense that every well injecting wastewater illegally be shut down immediately to avoid further damage.”
Industry illegally injected about 3 billion gallons of fracking wastewater into central California drinking-water and farm-irrigation aquifers, the state found after the US Environmental Protection Agency ordered a review of possible contamination.
According to documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity, the California State Water Resources Board found that at least nine of the 11 hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, wastewater injection sites that were shut down in July upon suspicion of contamination were in fact riddled with toxic fluids used to unleash energy reserves deep underground. The aquifers, protected by state law and the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, supply quality water in a state currently suffering unprecedented drought.
The documents also show that the Central Valley Water Board found high levels of toxic chemicals – including arsenic, thallium, and nitrates – in water-supply wells near the wastewater-disposal sites.
Arsenic is a carcinogen that weakens the immune system, and thallium is a common component in rat poison.
« Arsenic and thallium are extremely dangerous chemicals, » said Timothy Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands, according to the Center for Biological Diversity.
« The fact that high concentrations are showing up in multiple water wells close to wastewater injection sites raises major concerns about the health and safety of nearby residents. »
The Center for Biological Diversity obtained a letter from the state Water Board to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that said the Central Valley Regional Water Board discovered the health violations. Following the July suspension of the 11 injection sites, the EPA ordered a review of aquifers in the area to be completed within 60 days.
The state Water Board also said that 19 more injection wells may have also contaminated sensitive, protected aquifers, while dozens more wells have been the source of wastewater dumped into aquifers of unknown quality.
Despite these damning findings, the extent of wastewater pollution is still undetermined, as the Central Valley Water Board has thus far only tested eight water wells of the more than 100 in the area, according to the documents. Half of those tested came up positive for containing an excessive amount of toxic chemicals.
To unleash oil or natural gas, fracking requires blasting large volumes of highly pressurized water, sand, and other chemicals into layers of rock. The contents of fracking fluid include chemicals that the energy industry and many government officials will not name, yet they insist the chemicals do not endanger human health, contradicting findings by scientists and environmentalists. Toxic fracking wastewater is then either stored in deep underground wells, disposed of in open pits for evaporation, sprayed into waste fields, or used over again.
A recent study by the US Drought Monitor noted that 58 percent of California is experiencing « exceptional drought, » which is the most serious category on the agency’s five-level scale. Meanwhile, a fracking job can require as much as 140,000 to 150,000 gallons of water per day, water that then cannot be consumed or used in farming operations.
The Center for Biological Diversity noted that the contamination of water sources could be much worse in another regard, as flowback water that comes from oil wells in the state can contain levels of benzene, toluene, and other toxic chemicals that are hundreds of times higher than legally allowed. Flowback fluid is then released back into wastewater storage wells. Chemicals like benzene can take years to eventually find their way to water sources.
« Clean water is one of California’s most crucial resources, and these documents make it clear that state regulators have utterly failed to protect our water from oil industry pollution, » said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity.
« Much more testing is needed to gauge the full extent of water pollution and the threat to public health. But Governor [Jerry] Brown should move quickly to halt fracking to ward off a surge in oil industry wastewater that California simply isn’t prepared to dispose of safely. »