A lawsuit filed Wednesday by an Arizona-based environmental activist group seeks to halt the disposal of oilfield wastewater at a series of unlined pits near Buttonwillow.

The Center for Biological Diversity's suit in Kern County Superior Court asserts the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board voted April 5 to allow the dumping to continue indefinitely despite a staff report concluding the practice contaminates local groundwater and makes it unsuitable for agricultural and municipal use.

"Despite knowing this contamination is spreading, the water board is letting the oil industry continue this dangerous dumping," CBD senior attorney Hollin Kretzmann said in a news release about the lawsuit. "It's a slap in the face to the families, farms and businesses that depend on the Central Valley's precious water resources."

Dale Harvey, a supervising water resource control engineer with the water board, said the vote at issue in the lawsuit came after data in a board staff report came under dispute by the pits' operator, Valley Water Management Co.

"There are some questions about the data," he said. "There is a lot of activity in that area, not just limited to the oilfields.”

Harvey said the board allowed the dumping to continue on condition that Valley Water Management widen the scope of its groundwater monitoring in the area. He said agency staff plan to return the matter to the board within a year.

Dumping of oilfield wastewater — particularly the salty "produced water" that comes up from the ground along with oil — has gone on in Kern County for decades, sometimes at facilities unknown to regulators. In recent years the board has made it a priority to examine the practice and has moved to shut down operators that do not meet the board's standards.

The CBD said Valley Water Management dumps an average of 2.8 million gallons of wastewater per day at 83 unlined pits near Buttonwillow. It said contamination from the operation, including high levels of the carcinogen benzene, has spread underground at least 2.2 miles.

John Cox can be reached at 661-395-7404. Follow him on Twitter: @TheThirdGraf.

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