Report: New report finds California fails to safely manage radioactive and toxic oil and gas waste

Public and environmental health threatened by lack of proper waste management, inadequate setbacks, and increased permitting

January 26th — A new report released today by Earthworks, along with allies VISIÓN California and Center for Biological Diversity, shows that California is one of the worst states in the U.S. when it comes to regulating the oil and gas industry’s waste – from allowing crops to be irrigated with potentially toxic and radioactive wastewater to storing waste in unlined pits or injecting it into protected groundwater aquifers. These problems are just the latest in a legacy of regulatory failure in California, a history well documented within this report and elsewhere.

Earthworks’ California Oil & Gas Waste Report: The failure to safely manage oil and gas waste comes on the heels of a damning audit of Gov. Gavin Newsom’s oil and gas program, which found that state regulators issued improper approvals for hundreds of oil and gas wells in 2019. The report also comes in advance of a state legislative push in 2021 to protect frontline communities through setbacks between oil and gas operations and homes, schools, healthcare facilities, and prisons. Health and safety setbacks are a key demand from environmental justice advocates–particularly in Los Angeles and Kern Counties.

“The harmful wastes produced from oil and natural gas extraction have several pathways by which they contaminate water, air and soil,” said Melissa Troutman, Earthworks’ Research and Policy Analysis and the report’s co-author. “Many of the pathways that lead to oil and gas waste pollution in California are legally permitted by the state, despite the detrimental effects.”

Between 2008 and 2018 alone, oil and gas companies created a statewide total of over 1.3 trillion gallons of oil and gas wastewater in California. That’s enough liquid to fill over 17.6 million household bathtubs. There are currently three oil and gas operators whose wastewater is used to irrigate food crops, and in 2017 this “produced water” was used to irrigate 90,000 acres of crops in the state. From 2017 to 2020, the Environmental Protection Agency exempted 21 water aquifers in California from federal drinking water protections to allow oil and gas companies to use those aquifers to dispose of their wastes. Eighteen of those exemptions are in Kern County.

The only way to stop oil and gas waste contamination is to stop producing oil and gas waste. As long as that waste exists, there will always be spills, equipment failures and other incidents outside of regulatory control. But California can stop a large portion of waste pollution by enacting stronger regulations, and the state can protect its most vulnerable residents by enacting protective setbacks.

“Until major flaws in California’s regulatory regime are corrected, the state must stop issuing new permits,” said Troutman.

Recommendations in this report: 

  • No more “beneficial use” outside the industry – prohibit the use of waste on roads, crops, or for discharge to waterways after processing that does not include the disclosure of all chemicals for all operations.

  • No more waste in pits – prohibit the storage or disposal of oil and gas waste in earthen pits.

  • No more incomplete testing – require the full disclosure of all additives used in all well operations and the full characterization of waste prior to disposal, including testing for radioactive materials.

  • No more disposal in aquifers – stop using groundwater aquifers for the disposal of oil and gas waste.

  • No more self-policing – require state agency or third party verification of industry compliance with chemical disclosure and hazardous waste testing policies.

  • No more guessing where waste is going – publicly disclose and map facilities accepting, processing, and disposing of oil and gas waste, including landfills, pits, and injection wells.

  • No extraction or waste near sensitive receptors including homes, parks, community buildings, schools, medical facilities, and prisons – require a minimum 2,500 foot setback from all operations that produce, store, transport, process, use or dispose of oil and gas waste materials and sensitive receptors.

Further oil and gas extraction under the status quo guarantees more pollution and risk to the environment and public health, with low-income and BIPOC communities bearing the worst health impacts. This is why the best policy option is to halt any further oil and gas permitting in California. However, with more extraction likely, in addition to the legacy of waste coming from existing wells, swift protective measures need to be enacted through legislation and/or regulatory rulemaking.

Quotes of endorsement on the report’s findings and recommendations:

Dr. John Fleming, Senior Scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity: “It’s distressing to think about toxic chemicals in our rivers, radioactive waste on our roadways, and billions of gallons of hazardous wastewater pumped underground, contaminating groundwater and causing earthquakes. This report shows the dirty, dangerous consequences of the oil and gas industry and why we urgently need a just transition away from fossil fuels.”

Estela Garcia, Comite para un Arvin mejor: “En mi comunidad, hay mucha gente que está enferma – de asma, de alergias, y mucha mucha gente enferma de cáncer. Aquí en Arvin, hay pozos al lado de escuelas, al lado de departamentos. Hay algunos pozos que supuestamente ya no están funcionando, pero si pasas cerca a estos lugares, te llega un olor malo. Esta contaminación afecta a toda la comunidad. Si tú me preguntas ‘que cambiarías de tu comunidad,’  digo ‘que se retiran lo más que pudieran los pozos en nuestras comunidades.’”

Estela Garcia, impacted resident and member of the Committee for a Better Arvin: “In my community, there are many people who are sick – with asthma, with allergies, and many many people suffering from cancer. Here in Arvin, there are wells near schools and near apartments. There are wells that supposedly aren’t operating, but a terrible smell comes to you if you get close to these sites. This pollution affects everyone in the community. So if you ask me, ‘what would you change in your community’, I’d say ‘get the wells out of our communities as much as possible.’”

 INTERVIEW WITH REPORT AUTHORS OR IMPACTED RESIDENTS AVAILABLE UPON REQUEST

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