California Wastewater Company Halts Disposal

Feb. 13, 2019

In California, a non-profit has stopped disposal at two sites of groundwater contamination

A non-profit company in California has halted discharges at two facilities where environmentalists say wastewater contaminated groundwater resources. Valley Water Management Company is a non-profit that disposes of wastewater for dozens of oil operators in California.

According to the Pacific Standard, the closure stems from a lawsuit filed by Clean Water Action, the Center for Environmental Health and grassroots group Association of Irritated Residents (AIR). In 2015, the regional water board found that discharges at two facilities had elevated levels of oilfield contaminants.

As much as half of the roughly 500,000 gal of produced water that Valley Water Management Company takes in every day is disposed of at the Race Track Hill "spray field," where sprinklers run 24 hours a day drenching an empty hillside with produced water, according to Pacific Standard.

Tom Frantz, the founder of AIR, recalls staring at the green hillside when he was younger, now standing in stark contrast to its brown surroundings.

"It was pretty shocking to realize that was oil field wastewater," Frantz said to Pacific Standard.

In 2015, the water board staff found high levels of salts and boron in the wastewater at the Fee 34 facility and wastewater contaminants in the soil in the spray field at Race Track Hill. According to Pacific Standard, officials worried the contaminants may be carried down the hillside by rainfall into the Cottonwood Creek, which flows into the Kern River—a major source of water for the city of Bakersfield and the agricultural operations that surround it.

"If you want to do anything at all you want to protect the Kern River water," Frantz said to the Pacific Standard. "It's our lifeblood here in Kern County. It's what replenishes our aquifers."

The wastewater had percolated down into the groundwater at both facilities, and was inching toward high quality agriculture land. According to the Pacific Standard, the water board issues a cease – and – desist to Valley Water, giving the company until January 2018 to close down the facilities or clean up its act.

However, right before the deadline, a Kern County judge granted Valley Water a one-year extension, giving oil companies more time to obtain permits for other disposal methods.

"They made the argument that if they had to stop dumping it would force these small operators to go out of business," said Andrew Grinberg from Clean Water Action to Pacific Standard last year. "The judge basically just ate up the economic argument and [essentially] said, 'Well, we can deal with another year of contamination.'"