California Regulators Sued Over Plan To Turn Aquifer Into Permanent Oil Waste Dump

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California regulators are facing a lawsuit over their plans to turn an underground aquifer in the Price Canyon area of San Luis Obispo County into a permanent disposal site for oilfield wastewater and other potentially dangerous fluids.

In August 2015, oil giant Freeport-McMoRan submitted an application to California’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) for state approval of its plan to exempt an aquifer in the Arroyo Grande Oil Field from federal protections so that the company could move forward with plans to drill hundreds of new wells in the area.

In turn, this past February, DOGGR officially submitted an application to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have the aquifer exempted from protections under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

This is the first attempt by DOGGR officials to seek an aquifer exemption following the revelation last year that they had improperly permitted oil companies to dump toxic waste into protected underground water supplies via thousands of wastewater injection wells in violation of both federal and state laws. DOGGR announced earlier this year that it planned to seek exemptions for as many as 60 aquifers.

The lawsuit, filed by the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) in a Superior Court in San Luis Obispo last week, claims that regulators with DOGGR did not analyze the aquifer exemption plan’s risks as required under the California Environmental Quality Act. The CBD wants the court to set aside the state’s approval of the exemption and halt all wastewater injection operations in the aquifer until regulators have complied with the law.

Oil regulators are disturbingly determined to turn this aquifer into an oil industry waste dump, but they can’t just shrug off California’s environmental laws,” Maya Golden-Krasner, the CBD staff attorney who filed the lawsuit, said in a statement. “As California sweats out another year of drought, officials must analyze the risks of sacrificing underground water in San Luis Obispo County and across the state to oil companies. If we let oil companies pollute these aquifers, Californians will bitterly regret that decision in the dry decades to come.”

The EPA itself has already found fault with DOGGR's application. The agency sent a letter to DOGGR requesting more information about the aquifer exemption plan in April. The letter stated that the evidence and information Freeport-McMoRan provided to DOGGR — and on which DOGGR and the California State Water Resources Control Board based their decisions that the aquifer did indeed merit exemption — failed to demonstrate that the aquifer was not being used as a source of drinking water, where the exact boundaries of the aquifer lie, and whether or not injected fluids could migrate beyond the aquifer.

According to Golden-Krasner, Freeport-McMoRan “purported to respond to this request” in a submission to DOGGR, but DOGGR has not officially responded to the EPA with the new evidence the agency requested. “As a result, I would not expect a decision from EPA at least for another few weeks,” Golden-Krasner told DeSmog in an email.

But the CBD has identified several other flaws in DOGGR’s aquifer exemption application, such as the fact that the application fails to mention Freeport-McMoRan’s plans for a major expansion of operations in the Arroyo Grande Oil Field. The company wants to drill as many as 350 new wells, including oil production, steam injection, and waste disposal wells, in order to increase daily oil production 10-fold.

That means that the application also fails to include an analysis of what will happen to the aquifer if the expansion proceeds — including possible changes in pressures underground and the potential for inducing fractures that could transport pollution to other water sources. There are at least 100 water supply wells for drinking water and crop irrigation within a mile of the aquifer in question, the CBD notes.

Oil industry wastewater has been shown to contain high levels of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals. In fact, state oil officials’ own study detected benzene levels in oil wastewater at thousands of times the federal limits for drinking water, according to the CBD.

The California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) requires that agencies evaluate and try to mitigate the foreseeable impacts of a project, the CBD’s Golden-Krasner explained. “Since, in this case, it is clear that the exemption and the expansion are related and increased injection into the aquifer is clearly foreseeable, then the agencies would need to analyze those impacts and mitigate or avoid them if feasible.”

California rules require that injected fluids must remain in the aquifer and not migrate to, or affect, nearby groundwater. Since drastically more fluid will be pumped or injected into the aquifer under Freeport-McMoran’s planned expansion, the state agencies should have evaluated whether that will affect the groundwater flow into or out of the aquifer. But they didn’t do that, Golden-Krasner said.

CEQA would also force the state agencies to evaluate other foreseeable impacts that are likely to result from accommodating an expanded area of injection, such as impacts to air quality, endangered species, and traffic. But none of these issues are considered in DOGGR’s application to the EPA.

“It’s shocking that Gov. Jerry Brown’s oil regulators are supporting the oil industry’s efforts to get federal permission to dump waste into California’s protected aquifers,” Golden-Krasner said. “California officials must put our thirsty state’s water needs ahead of oil company profits.”

Image Credit: Loco Steve /

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