Climate

Drought-Stricken California Let Oil Companies Inject Waste Into Drinkable Water Sources

CREDIT: AP PHOTO/RICH PEDRONCELLI

The San Francisco Chronicle has a bombshell story showing that California regulators gave oil companies permission to inject chemical-laden wastewater into drinkable water sources underground.

The revelation comes as California enters another month of its epic, four-year drought, which has left some communities pumping out so much groundwater that the land is literally sinking. The state saw almost no rain in January, normally the wettest month of the year.

Despite this, the state’s oil and gas regulator has been allowing oil companies to dump their waste into clean drinking water sources for years, according to documents reviewed by the Chronicle. A large portion of the waste injections happened in Kern County, which according to the American Lung Association has the third-worst air quality in the country. Kern’s population is also disproportionately low-income and non-white compared to other parts of the state.

Specifically, the Chronicle found that with state permission, the oil industry has drilled 171 wastewater injection wells into clean aquifers, and 253 wastewater wells into aquifers that were salty but potentially usable with treatment.

Wastewater from oil and gas drilling can contain chemicals like arsenic and benzene, heavy metals, and radioactive material.

Hundreds of billions of gallons of wastewater are disposed by the oil and gas industry every year, many of which are in California, the third-highest producing state behind Texas and North Dakota. To dispose of the waste by injection into an aquifer, companies must receive an exemption from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Though it may be surprising, environmental advocates have long-known that oil companies were dumping wastewater into California aquifers. But the Chronicle’s discovery showed that the practice was more widespread than advocates had thought. Last year, the Center for Biological Diversity found the existence of nine wastewater injection wells in aquifers that could have be used for drinking water if treated. The Chronicle found 171 injection wells in aquifers that were entirely clean.

“It is shocking,” said Patrick Sullivan, a spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity. “It is beyond belief.”

As of now, there is no evidence that people have been drinking water contaminated by the practice. California state officials told the Chronicle that tests of nearby drinking-water wells have so far showed no contamination. But because of the population of the surrounding area, Sullivan said that millions of people could be within the range of pollution.

“We don’t know how many people are getting drinking water from these aquifers, put potentially there could be millions of people drinking this water,” he said.

The Center is calling on all ongoing wastewater injections to cease. And according to the Chronicle, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (which apparently helped uncover the practice in the first place) is threatening to seize control of regulating the wells. The state has until Feb. 6 to tell the EPA how it plans to handle the situation.