FRESNO — Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board members voted Thursday to require an oil wastewater dump site operator in McKittrick suspected of polluting nearby groundwater to install a network of wells monitoring contamination. That falls short of environmentalists’ demands for the board to shutter the operation.
Bakersfield-based Valley Water Management Company — which maintains a 149-acre pond that services oil operators in the South Belridge, Cymric and McKittrick oil fields — will have 150 days to drill wells in the environmentally-protected region where it operates and report its findings to the water board, said Dale Harvey, a supervising water resources control engineer.
“We are going to put Valley Water on a path to compliance,” Incoming Executive Officer Patrick Pulupa said.
After data is collected, regional water board officials will determine how far discharged wastewater is migrating underground, and if pollutants are within acceptable levels. If they aren't, the board could order Valley Water to further treat their water so it doesn’t risk contaminating usable groundwater or issue a cease-and-desist letter halting operations, Harvey said.
“We’ve got our guidance about what we need to do … and then a decision will be made about whether or not we can continue to do what we do,” said Jim Waldron, a consulting geologist with Valley Water. “Certainly, Valley [Water] does not want to impact usable groundwater. We don’t want to do that. We live here, too, but we are a business and we need to know the answers.”
The decision, which follows a months-long back-and-forth between Valley Water and the regional water board, marks the latest chapter in how state regulators have been grappling with oil wastewater facilities while working to ensure groundwater supplies remain usable in preparation for another drought.
Although board members were adamant Thursday that their decision does not set a precedent for similar oil wastewater facilities statewide, it could be a bellwether for how the regional board handles such operators in the future.
“The speed of getting this information is very important to me,” board member Carmen Ramirez said after voting for the monitoring and reporting program. “This is a priority.”
The water 'has to go somewhere'
For every barrel of oil drawn from the ground, about 12 barrels of water is produced. Some of it is converted into steam and shot into the ground to coax thick oil from the earth, “but a lot of that water has to go somewhere else,” Waldron said.
Companies have for decades disposed of the rest of the wastewater by discharging it into pits, known as percolation ponds, where it is skimmed of oil, run through a system of cleaning ponds and then left to evaporate or seep into the ground. That practice, depended upon by local energy companies, has come under fire by environmental groups wary of potential groundwater contamination.
Since the late 1950s, Valley Water has maintained its facility, which services more than two-dozen energy companies. Oil producers dump more than 2.6 million gallons of “very poor quality water” into the ponds daily, said Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Regional Water Board.
Valley Water’s special counsel, Michelle Thorme, said that the company has been operating according to the law — a 1969 resolution that authorizes the use of evaporation and percolation ponds to dispose of oil wastewater. The resolution included no monitoring requirements and has not been updated since it was written.
Meanwhile, technology to recycle the oil wastewater hasn’t caught up, said Daniel Tormey, president of Catalyst Environmental Solutions, which was retained as a consultant for Valley Water.
“We’re trying to find a place where this water used in oil and gas can be used beneficially and it won’t happen overnight,” Tormey said. He and Thorme likened it to the “gray water” recycling craze. Years ago, the idea of treating and reusing water that went down sinks and showers was frowned upon, but now some groups are suing cities for not recycling enough of it, Thorme said.
“Now, the environmental community has come full circle, and we’re hoping we can get there with the oil field-produced water, too,” Thorme said.
'We don't know all the chemicals'
Those solutions, however, haven’t yet been developed and the wastewater Valley Water has been discharging could be threatening usable groundwater.
In a 19-page report, water board officials said that available data indicates wastewater has been migrating from beneath Valley Water’s ponds as far as two miles away, “threatening to degrade/pollute groundwater that is beneficially used” for agriculture.
“Putting water of this quality into the regional aquifer is a significant issue,” Rodgers said.
That wastewater contains a cocktail of potentially dangerous chemicals, including chloride and cancer-causing benzene. The levels of benzene found in the McKittrick ponds are about 400 times higher than the state’s acceptable level for drinking water, according to the water board staff report.
“We don’t know all the chemicals that it might contain because operators withhold information about all the chemicals they use in drilling, well completion, well maintenance and other stages of production. However, we have ample cause for concern just based on the chemicals we do know about,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney at the Oakland-based Center for Biological Diversity, which called for the board to halt Valley Water’s operations Thursday, along with Washington, D.C.-based environmental group Clean Water Action.
Valley Water has been voluntarily monitoring its ponds since 2002, but regional water officials say they need better assessments. They’re unclear about how far water is migrating once it seeps into the ground. They are aware, however, that at least one farming operation — Starrh Family Farms — could be impacted.
A Starrh Farms official told the water board in January that one of its wells near Belridge had a total dissolved solids count that was twice what the state allows for drinking water. Those wells are important for Starrh’s operations when surface water allocations are short, according to the water board staff report.
Tom Frantz, a retired teacher and sixth-generation farmer whose father partnered with Fred Starrh in the 1970s, said he has been concerned about the percolation ponds since the early 2000s. He said he wants the groundwater in the region to be preserved so that another six generations of Frantzes can continue farming.
“We have a serious problem there. You need to prepare a cease-and-desist order. That water has moved so far and it’s not going to stop,” Frantz said of the underground migration.
‘There isn't an easy fix'
Despite the action Thursday, a cease-and-desist order could still be ordered in the future, after board members receive better data about the pollutants in the water, and how much is flowing toward usable groundwater aquifers.
“The chemicals being looked at are chemicals of great concern if they’re there — and they may well not be — but that’s the purpose of this exercise,” Board Chairman Karl Longley said. “We’ve heard from some members of the public that a cease-and-desist order should be placed upon this facility. That could be one possible outcome depending upon the results of the data.”
Without that data, a decision made to close the facility could be legally challenged and reversed, Longley said.
If operations are halted, it would create a major expense and regulatory headache for oil field operators, Waldron said. The monitoring program agreed upon Thursday will cost Valley Water $125,000 annually to operate, something Valley Water Manager Russell Emerson described as an “excessive and unreasonable burden” in a March 9 letter to the board.
If oil producers can no longer dispose of wastewater at the percolation ponds, they would be forced to convert to subsurface injection, which requires oversight by the California Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, and would cost about five-times as much per barrel, Waldron said.
“And it could be much higher if you have to build all that infrastructure and injection wells. It’s not something that is taken lightly. Going total injection is an expensive proposition, and in California you’ve got a lot of regulations,” Waldron said. “There isn’t an easy fix.”
Ramirez said that she was sensitive to the business costs, but wouldn’t ease up on the monitoring process.
“I don’t begrudge a company for having these things enter into the equation, however I know Valley Water has to recognize that our charge is different as the water board,” Ramirez said. “It is our charge, to the best extent that we can, preserve the quality of water not only for Californians today, but certainly generations forward.”