Legal Petition Seeks Emergency Moratorium On Fracking in California

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A coalition of over 150 environmental, health, and public advocacy organizations in California filed a legal petition Thursday seeking to compel Governor Jerry Brown to issue an emergency moratorium on fracking in the state.

The proximate cause for the legal petition seems to be revelations that fracking flowback in California was found to contain dangerously high levels of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals such as benzene, toluene and hexavalent chromium. But evidence has been mounting for months that drastic measures are needed, as state regulators have utterly failed to protect residents from the oil and gas industry in California.

Flowback is a fluid that floats to the surface of fracked wells and is a key component of oil industry wastewater, which is most often disposed of by injecting it underground.

Over the past few months, however, it has come to light that regulators with California’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) allowed hundreds of injection wells to dump oil industry wastewater into aquifers that contain water clean enough to drink or that could be made drinkable, and hence should have been protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The agency also permitted thousands more wells to inject fluids from “enhanced oil recovery” techniques such as acidization and cyclic steam injection into protected aquifers.

Cancer-causing chemicals like benzene have no place in California’s water supply,” Karuna Jaggar, Executive Director at Breast Cancer Action, said in a statement on the website of Californians Against Fracking, the statewide coalition that spearheaded the petition to Gov. Brown. “These chemicals harm the health of current and future generations. Governor Brown needs to step up and halt fracking immediately.”

The legal petition was submitted under California’s Administrative Procedure Act, which means Brown is required to respond within 30 days.

It’s not just the state’s injection wells that are creating the problem: A report released last year exposed the threat to California's air and water from the open, unlined pits that are also frequently used to store the oil industry's toxic wastewater. At least 432 of these pits are currently in use in California, and the majority of them have been allowed by DOGGR to operate with an expired permit or without a permit altogether.

Compounding the threat is the fact that there are over 350,000 children in California attending a school within one mile of an oil and gas well, including at least 217 wells that use fracking, acidization, and gravel packing as a stimulation technique.

Sequoia Elementary School in Shafter, CA has been called “the most exposed school in all of California” because it is within a mile of 35 wells, including 3 fracked wells within a half mile of the school. In fact, one of those fracked oil wells sits less than 1,200 feet from Sequoia Elementary’s playground, which Madeline Stano, legal counsel for the Center for Race, Poverty & the Environment, called “A symbol of the painful reality of how we frack in California.”

“Millions of Californians living near oil and gas wells face grave health and safety threats from fracking and all phases of the oil and gas production process,” the coalition wrote in the legal petition. “The oil industry is polluting our air, contaminating our aquifers, using dangerous chemicals near homes and schools, increasing earthquake risk by injecting vast quantities of wastewater into disposal wells near active faults, and speeding climate change. These harms and risks pose an emergency and must be halted immediately.”

The failure by California regulators to protect the state’s water supply from contamination by the oil and gas industry is all the more alarming given that the state is in the grip of an epic, prolonged drought.

“Oil companies are illegally contaminating our aquifers during a devastating drought,” says Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity. “Fracking also pollutes our air and worsens climate change. Our state suffers more damage every day the governor continues allowing fracking to contaminate our air and water.”

Image Credit: cvm /

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