Oil producers have been dumping chemical-laden wastewater into hundreds of unlined pits operating without proper permits.
Inspections by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board revealed the existence of more than 300 previously unidentified waste sites in Kern County, CA. The water board’s review found more than one-third of the region’s active disposal pits are operating without permission, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.
The pits raise new water quality concerns in a region where agricultural fields sit side by side with oil fields and where California’s ongoing drought has made protecting groundwater supplies paramount.
Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the water board’s Fresno office, said in the report the unregulated pits are a “significant problem” and the agency expects to issue as many as 200 enforcement orders.
State regulators face federal scrutiny for what critics said has been decades of lax oversight of the oil and gas industry and fracking operations in particular. The Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources has admitted that for years it allowed companies to inject fracking wastewater into protected groundwater aquifers, a problem they attributed to a history of chaotic record-keeping.
“The state doesn’t seem to be willing to put the protection of groundwater and water quality ahead of the oil industry being able to do business as usual,” said Andrew Grinberg of the group Clean Water Action.
The pits — long, shallow troughs gouged out of dirt — hold water produced from fracking and other oil drilling operations. The water forced out of the ground during oil operations is heavily saline and often contains benzene and other naturally occurring but toxic compounds.
Regional water officials said they believe none of the pits in the county have linings that would prevent chemicals from seeping into groundwater beneath them. Some of the pits also lack netting or covers to protect migrating birds or other wildlife.
Currently, linings for pits are not mandatory, though officials said they will consider requiring them in the future. Covers are a requirement in some instances.
The pits are a common site 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 accounts for at least 80 percent of California’s oil production.
Rodgers said Thursday the agency’s review found 933 pits, or sumps, in Kern County. Of those, 578 are active and 355 not currently used.
Of the active pits, 370 have permits to operate and 208 do not. All of the pits have now undergone inspections, he said.
The possible existence of hundreds of unpermitted pits came to light when regional water officials compared their list of pit operators to a list compiled by the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources. The oil regulator’s list contained at least 300 more waste pits than water officials had permitted, Rodgers said.
The pits are an inexpensive disposal method for an enormous volume of water forced out of the ground during drilling or other operations, such as fracking. Rodgers said that just one field, the McKittrick Oil Field, produces 110,000 barrels of wastewater a day. According to figures from 2013, oil operations in Kern County produce 80 billion gallons of such wastewater — an amount that if clean would supply nearly a half-million households for a year.
More than 2,000 pits ended up dredged over decades of oil operations in Kern County, according to water board records. Oil field companies have not always properly disposed of water, Rodgers said. As recently as the 1980s, it was customary to dump wastewater into drainage canals that line the San Joaquin Valley’s agricultural fields.