Polluting Oil Wastewater Facility Finally Closing After Settlement With Environmental and Community Groups

More than two years after agreeing to stop polluting groundwater near Bakersfield, Valley Water Management Company (VWMC) has announced that it has stopped dumping contaminated oil and gas wastewater at its Race Track Hills and Fee 34 facilities.

A settlement agreement announced in July 2016 between watchdog groups Association of Irritated Residents, Clean Water Fund, and Center for Environmental Health, and oil and gas wastewater disposal company, VWMC, required the company to stop discharging toxic levels of chemicals into open pits that contaminated groundwater at two of its facilities east of Bakersfield. 

“Dumping toxic oil and gas wastewater into open pits threatens California’s water future. This practice has contaminated drinking and irrigation water, yet regulators continue to allow oil companies to cut corners and dump their waste into the environment, a disposal method banned in several other oil and gas states,” said Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action. “At least at these two facilities the public has been able to force one bad actor to change their behavior where regulators have failed to protect groundwater.”

VWMC, 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 Proposition 65 for discharges of the cancer-causing chemicals benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene and toluene into an underground source of drinking water. The settlement with VWMC was the first Proposition 65 lawsuit to limit toxic oil and gas wastewater discharge into open pits. Despite enhanced regulatory oversight of oil wastewater discharges, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) had failed to halt operations at these sites despite documenting more than 25 years of violations. 

VWMC still operates several disposal facilities. Along with other oil and gas operators, they continue to discharge millions of gallons of contaminated wastewater into hundreds of open-air, unlined ponds across Kern County. VWMC also operated a “spray field” at the Race Track Hills facility, where they discharged wastewater with sprinklers onto the adjacent hillside.

“This insane practice of spraying oily waste water on a hillside above the Kern River is finally over,” said Tom Frantz, Kern County Almond farmer, and head of Association of Irritated Residents.  “Our freshwater is too important to risk.” 

As part of the settlement and ongoing regulatory oversight from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, VWMC had been conducting quarterly groundwater monitoring and chemical analysis of wastewater. In a report submitted to co-plaintiffs in February, VWMC announced: “Valley Water ceased sending produced water to Fee 34 and Race Track Hill on January 3, 2019. Produced water that would have been sent to these facilities is now being injected into UIC wells by the individually [sic] producers, not Valley Water.” 

“This is good news for clean water in Kern County. There’s no reason to continue disposing of oil wastewater in ways that threaten the quality of our water,” said Caroline Cox of Center for Environmental Health.

Despite initially agreeing to cease discharging Proposition 65 listed chemicals by January 1, 2018, VWMC had successfully lobbied for extensions with both the Regional Board and the Kern County Superior Court, which certified the settlement. The use of Proposition 65 provided community oversight where the pace and efficacy of regulatory action had thus far been inadequate.

Co-plaintiffs Association of Irritated Residents, Center for Environmental Health, and Clean Water Fund were represented by Jason Flanders and Matthew Maclear of the Aqua Terra Aeris (ATA) Law Group.

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