Industry wells next to an irrigation canal used for almond farms in Kern County
New report finds California fails to safely manage radioactive and toxic oil and gas waste

By Ramona du Houx

January 26, 2021

new report released on January 26, 2021 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.

“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.”

Earthworks’ California Oil & Gas Waste Report: The failure to safely manage oil and gas waste comes on the heels of a damning audit of CA Governor 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, and a major focus of the work Elected Officials to Protect America-California is doing.

Oil and gas contaminants have migrated into underground aquifers used for drinking water in California.

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.

“California can stop a large portion of waste pollution by enacting stronger regulations. But my people can’t wait for more studies and reports from the government before action is taken. It’s time the state started to protect frontline communities that live next to oil and gas wells by establishing protective zone setbacks of a quarter of a mile, 2,500 feet, at least. Not only is the water in our communities polluted by these oil and gas companies, we live breathing in toxins from these wells. The state needs stop issuing new permits, and hold these companies accountable. They are being allowed to pollute with impunity. The oil and gas industry needs to clean up their mess, not leave it for county governments – local taxpayers – to deal with,” said Firebaugh City former mayor and current Councilmember Felipe Perez, EOPA – CA Leadership Council.

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.

“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,” said Estela Garcia, impacted resident and member of the Committee for a Better Arvin.

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.

Recommendations from the 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.

Even after waste disposal operations cease, wastewater disposal could cause earthquakes for years to come, possibly decades after, according to a study published in July 2019 in Nature.

 “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,” said Dr. John Fleming, Senior Scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity.

While the most active oil/gas producing region is the Central Valley, also an agricultural region regulations are need statewide. As of 2018, California had 52,863 active oil and gas wells throughout the state, from the southern border to the far north, and 31,132 inactive wells. Though not producing oil or natural gas, inactive wells still produced waste that continues to be mismanaged.