Regulatory resolution: after years of problems, Arvin CA residents get some pollution relief

All good things come to those who wait, the saying goes. An Arvin, CA neighborhood recently experienced this—though unfortunately the waiting included years of pollution impacts.

As the video below shows, from 2017-2019, Earthworks documented a leaking tank at the Sun Mountain Oil Simpson 1 well using optical gas imaging (OGI) cameras and filed formal complaints about the problem with the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. Our investigations began at the request of the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), which was in turn responding to residents who kept being plagued with strong, sickening hydrocarbon odors. Our OGI footage confirmed that the pollution was blowing outside the well site fence toward nearby apartments and a playground.

The Simpson 1 well became a Community Empowerment Project (CEP) poster child for how long regulators can drag their feet on stopping pollution. It also exposed a dangerous gap between the air district’s regulations and California’s 2017 Greenhouse Gas Emission Standard for Crude Oil and Natural Gas Facilities (also referred to as the California Oil and Gas Rule, or COGR). The rule is part of California’s climate change strategy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. 

For the two years the Simpson tank leak was apparent (it was possibly spewing far longer), Earthworks, CCEJN, and residents asked the District to do something about it. Agency officials checked it out, but repeatedly responded that due to an exemption in District Rule 4623 for small tanks (defined as under 50 barrels of throughput per day), Sun Mountain didn’t have to keep the tank “leak free” and the District couldn’t do anything.

Earthworks refused to accept this response, pointing out in written and verbal exchanges with inspectors that the District was responsible for implementing COGR–and that part of this mandate was to figure out where the District’s tank exemption ended and the state’s leak detection and repair requirements (part of reducing dangerous pollution) began. 

The District finally did just that. Last week, inspectors on the Simpson 1 case informed Earthworks that they’d sent a notice of violation to Sun Mountain Oil for failure to comply with two parts of COGR: finding and fixing leaks above certain thresholds within a required timeframe and registration of all equipment subject to the rule. Despite multiple attempts to reduce the leak and bring the tank into compliance, Sun Mountain was unable to do so, and instead opted to shut it down.

This is welcome news for the neighborhood, CCEJN, and Earthworks. It’s also a positive indication that the District is starting to head in the right direction on enforcing COGR.

In the meantime, there are countless other tanks and well sites just like the Simpson statewide—including many that we know are polluting and pose health risks. This reality is one of the reasons why Arvin recently passed an ordinance to keep any new oil and gas wells further away from homes and businesses and the California legislature has considered a setback bill to keep oil and gas 2,500 feet away from homes, schools, playgrounds, and hospitals.

Starting on January 1, 2020, the oil and gas rule will require repair of even smaller leaks than is currently the case, as well as more stringent enforcement actions for larger leaks. Air districts across California are hopefully getting busy making sure operators follow the law. Earthworks and local partners will certainly be keeping an eye, and OGI cameras, focused on their progress.