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California Halts Injection of Fracking Waste, Warning it May Be Contaminating Aquifers

State’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as California aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for oil industry.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Dominique Chappard/Creative Commons

 

California officials have ordered an emergency shut-down of 11 oil and gas waste injection sites and a review more than 100 others in the state's drought-wracked Central Valley out of fear that companies may have been pumping fracking fluids and other toxic waste into drinking water aquifers there.

The state's Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources on July 7 issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies warning that they may be injecting their waste into aquifers that could be a source of drinking water, and stating that their waste disposal "poses danger to life, health, property, and natural resources." The orders were first reported by the Bakersfield Californian, and the state has confirmed with ProPublica that its investigation is expanding to look at additional wells.

The action comes as California's agriculture industry copes with a drought crisis that has emptied reservoirs and cost the state $2.2 billion this year alone. The lack of water has forced farmers across the state to supplement their water supply from underground aquifers, according to a study released this week by the University of California Davis.

The problem is that at least 100 of the state's aquifers were presumed to be useless for drinking and farming because the water was either of poor quality, or too deep underground to easily access. Years ago, the state exempted them from environmental protection and allowed the oil and gas industry to intentionally pollute them. But not all aquifers are exempted, and the system amounts to a patchwork of protected and unprotected water resources deep underground. Now, according to the cease and desist orders issued by the state, it appears that at least seven injection wells are likely pumping waste into fresh water aquifers protected by the law, and not other aquifers sacrificed by the state long ago.

"The aquifers in question with respect to the orders that have been issued are not exempt," said Ed Wilson, a spokesperson for the California Department of Conservation in an email.

A 2012 ProPublica investigation of more than 700,000 injection wells across the country found that wells were often poorly regulated and experienced high rates of failure, outcomes that were likely polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal law. That investigation also disclosed a little-known program overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that exempted more than 1,000 other drinking water aquifers from any sort of pollution protection at all, many of them in California.

Those are the aquifers at issue today. The exempted aquifers, according to documents the state filed with the U.S. EPA in 1981 and obtained by ProPublica, were poorly defined and ambiguously outlined. They were often identified by hand-drawn lines on a map, making it difficult to know today exactly which bodies of water were supposed to be protected, and by which aspects of the governing laws. Those exemptions and documents were signed by California Gov. Jerry Brown, who also was governor in 1981.

State officials emphasized to ProPublica that they will now order water testing and monitoring at the injection well sites in question. To date, they said, they have not yet found any of the more regulated aquifers to have been contaminated.

"We do not have any direct evidence any drinking water has been affected," wrote Steve Bohlen, the state oil and gas supervisor, in a statement to ProPublica.

Bohlen said his office was acting "out of an abundance of caution," and a spokesperson said that the state became aware of the problems through a review of facilities it was conducting according to California's fracking law passed late last year, which required the state to study fracking impacts and adopt regulations to address its risks, presumably including underground disposal.

 
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