Watchdog Groups Settle First-Ever Prop 65 Lawsuit to Clean Up Polluting Oil and Gas Wastewater Pits

Operator Agrees to Pay Penalties and Clean Up Dumping Facilities

Oakland, CA-A settlement agreement announced today between watchdog groups Association of Irritated Residents, Clean Water Fund and Center for Environmental Health, and oil and gas wastewater disposal company, Valley Water Management (Valley) will require the company to stop discharging toxic chemicals into groundwater at two of its facilities east of Bakersfield. Valley, the single largest operator of unlined oil and gas wastewater pits in California, agreed to the settlement with the groups after they filed suit under the state’s Prop 65 safe drinking water law. The settlement with Valley, which operates 462 oil and gas wastewater pits at 28 facilities, is the first Prop 65 lawsuit to limit toxic oil and gas wastewater discharge into disposal pits.

The organizations sued Valley under Proposition 65 for discharges of the cancer-causing chemicals benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene and toluene into a drinking water source just East of Bakersfield near the Edison Oil Field. Under the agreement, Valley will limit the discharge of chemicals listed under Prop 65 and make significant upgrades at the “Racetrack Hills” and “Fee 34” facilities, including installing treatment technology to minimize potentially harmful chemical discharges. Valley will also pay $200,000 in penalties, under the settlement terms.

“It is imperative for businesses and residents of Kern County to protect the quality of our groundwater for future generations,” said Tom Frantz, a Kern County almond farmer and head of Association of Irritated Residents. “We can’t let the desire for greater profits today harm our children’s quality of life tomorrow.”

The settlement comes after the widespread use of unlined pit disposal in California has been revealed, yet regulators have been slow to shut down polluting facilities. Recent investigations have found 1,165 unlined oil wastewater pits, primarily in Kern County; 803 (69%) of which either do not have a permit to operate or have out of date permits, issued before current water quality rules were adopted. In some cases, regulators have identified groundwater near unlined pits has been contaminated with salts, metals and organic compounds. California oil and gas companies produce roughly 130 billion gallons of toxic wastewater annually.

“All Californians deserve safe drinking water, free from contamination by the oil and gas industry,” said Michael Green, CEO of Center for Environmental Health. “It’s time for our state to transition as swiftly as possible to clean, renewable energy sources and end the fossil fuel industry’s threats to our health and the climate.”

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has begun to increase oversight of disposal pits and will be considering “General Orders” that will govern the operation of disposal pits at its regular meeting on August 18 and 19. However, the draft orders propose allowing disposal of toxic wastewater to continue in many cases. In Santa Barbara and Monterey Counties, roughly 50 additional unlined pits have been discovered, nearly all of them operating without permits. The Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board has not taken any public action to shut down or regulate these facilities.

“Regulators have been slow to protect California’s precious water supply from oil industry polluters, making it necessary for the public to step in and enforce the law,” said Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Fund. “The general orders under consideration at the Central Valley Board do not go far enough to keep toxic wastewater out of drinking water sources. Instead of adopting these weak orders, the Regional Board should listen to the science and prohibit the dumping of wastewater that contains harmful chemicals.”

In July 2015 the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), in its independent study on well stimulation, recommended that oil and gas wastewater containing harmful chemicals should not be disposed of into unlined pits. The settlement, if properly implemented and if Valley’s proposed treatment is effective, would bring the two facilities into compliance with this recommendation by 2018. The proposed general orders by the Central Valley Water Board fail to meet this scientific standard and fall well short of the recommended level of water quality protection.

The Plaintiffs, Association of Irritated Residents, Clean Water Fund, and the Center for Environmental Health were represented by the Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group in this action.

Additional resources on oil and gas wastewater pits in California:

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