News Feature | August 10, 2017

California Drinking Water Advocates Fight Fracking

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

California regulators are not doing enough to protect groundwater from wastewater injection by the energy industry, according to a new report by KQED.

“Oil companies in California produce tons of wastewater. On average, for every barrel of oil, a California oil well produces 19 barrels of water, often laden with salts, trace metals and chemicals like benzene,” the report said.

To discard the wastewater, energy companies pump it into the ground.

“It’s the standard way in which oil companies dispose of wastewater in California: using injection wells, which are not much more than a pipe going into the ground with a gauge to monitor water pressure,” the report said.

“The wastewater is deposited pretty deep, below the usable groundwater, into aquifers that are already too salty to be drinkable,” the report said.

The question is whether the wastewater is being disposed of at a sufficient depth.

“Groundwater that’s potentially drinkable is automatically off limits for oil companies for wastewater disposal. But if groundwater quality is already tainted by oil or salts, then companies can get permission from state agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to put wastewater there,” the report said.

Bill Samarin, a farmer in California’s San Joaquin Valley, says wastewater is being injected far too close to groundwater on his property. He fought regulators on this issue with help from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC).

“We were just stunned,” he said, per KQED. “It was like: is this even possible that they could be taking wastewater and injecting it into drinking water? Can you imagine that that actually occurs in California in this day and age?”

Briana Mordick of the NRDC said the problem is widespread.

“There are thousands of wells spread all across the state that are potentially impacting clean drinking water,” she said, per the report.

Poor data is part of the problem, per KQED:

State oil regulators grant permits for wastewater injection wells, so knowing the boundaries between protected and unprotected aquifers is crucial. But for decades, Mordick says, state regulators confused those boundaries.

“It’s just a pretty shocking state of affairs,” says Mordick. “Just poor communication, poor record-keeping. It looks like a completely broken system.”

The upshot is that it remains unclear how deeply contaminated California’s aquifers have become as a result of wastewater injection.

“The risk is that [regulators have] allowed oil companies to contaminate drinking water aquifers to such an extent that Californians may have permanently lost those sources of fresh water,” the report said.

Problems with wastewater injection are not unique to California. The U.S. EPA asked oil producers in Oklahoma’s Osage County to halt wastewater injection at seven sites in July, according to Tulsa World.

“Nearly a year after the Bird Creek saltwater contamination first was reported, EPA Region Six Administrator Sam Coleman said brine contamination in the drainage is a long-standing problem, has multiple sources, likely was most recently exacerbated by mechanical failures, may encompass a wider area than is presently known, and may lead to more frequent reporting requirements for producers,” the report said.

To read more about fracking visit Water Online’s Produced Water Treatment Solutions Center.