Scientists fear that California’s water supply is under threat of pollution since oil companies are allowed to dump their waste water into unlined, open pits or tanks. This is a waste management practice that has been banned in the other oil-producing states.
Fred Starrh says that Aera Energy, an oil company owned by Shell and ExxonMobil, destroyed the water under the land of his family’s farm near Shafter, California. He said that they used to have clean water until the oil company began storing their waste into unlined, open “percolation ponds” close to their farm.
The Starrh family sued Aera Energy, the waste ponds’ owners for intentionally polluting the groundwater, a resource that they can never replace.
Ralph Wegis, the Starrh’s lawyer said the damage is “too big to fix.” It has been a 13-year court battle against Aera Energy.
The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) oversees these open wastewater ponds. According to scientific tests reported by the staff of the Water Board, the wastewater can contain benzene, toluene, xylenes, strontium, boron, ethylbenzene and other toxic chemicals.
According to Patrick Pulupa, incoming CVRWQCB Executive Officer, there are at least 1086 active wastewater ponds stretching from Monterey to Kern County. However, NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit discovered even more active ponds that are not listed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.
A lawyer with the Center for Biodiversity Officials in Texas, Hollin Kretzman, says that Texas banned the practice of dumping wastewater in open, unlined pits in 1969. The ban resulted from hundreds of reports about groundwater contamination. Other states obliged oil companies to put a barrier at the base of a waste pond to prevent pollution from seeping into the groundwater below.
The other state aside from California that allows open, unlined wastewater pits is New Jersey. However, New Jersey is not a major oil and gas producer like Montana, Texas, California and North Dakota.
Oil companies argue that the toxins don’t go with the water that seeps into the soil. However, the staff at the CVRWQCB reports that polluted water reaches up to 2.2 miles underground from the base of the wastewater ponds. In another report, the wastewater went down more than a mile.
Dr. Seth Shonkoff, the Executive Director of PS2 Healthy Energy in Berkeley and a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management said that it is ‘increasingly likely” that the unlined wastewater pits can pollute groundwater. An environmental scientist and epidemiologist, Dr. Shonkoff has been researching on water and health concerns for over 15 years.
He’s concerned that California’s current policy of allowing this kind of dumping practice endangers the state’s water supplies during future droughts.
Dr. Shonkoff said that the uncertainty that the water supply will not expose people to hazardous chemicals keeps him up at night.
Companies that discharge waste that could affect water quality need a permit from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) or the Water Board.
Incoming CVRWQCB Executive Officer Patrick Pulupa, admits the agency “could have been doing a better job monitoring these ponds getting these ponds under modern orders that reflect the 2017 2018 California standards.”
He added that they are “redoubling those efforts and making sure that all of our discharge permits are modern permits that regulate these ponds appropriately.”
It’s estimated that to clean up the toxic waste under the Starrh’s land would cost 2 billion dollars.
Aera Energy sent a statement to NBC Bay Area’s Investigative Unit that the company works to “meet and exceed program expectations” set by the US EPA, Regional Water Quality Control Board, State Water Board and DOGGR to guarantee the protection of groundwater quality. According to the statement, the company established water monitoring networks at its production facilities to perform the required monitoring and reporting frequencies.
Regarding the lawsuit filed by the Starrh family, Aera Energy said that three jury trials failed to link Aera’s operations to tree crops damage or contaminated drinking water resources. Aera added that the case was settled “to avoid further expense and the distraction of more protracted litigation.”
The Investigative Unit reviewed court records and found that the first jury’s decision in the Starrh’s case stated that Aera Energy had “intentionally, recklessly, or negligently” caused its wastewater to seep into the “subsurface and native groundwater” underneath the farmland.
Aera Energy appealed the first jury’s verdict as well as the result of two more trials which went on for 13 years. Then the Starrh’s resolved the lawsuit but the amount was not disclosed.
According to Fred Starrh, it is strange to see how power can make a wrong situation continue to exist because the regulatory agencies are ignoring it.
Fred Starrh’s son Larry blames the local and state regulators more than the oil and gas company because they have the power to stop the wrong situation but did not do so.