With the oil industry ever-evolving, it’s hard to keep up with the latest. In this week’s feature, we delve into everything oil and how it may be impacting your neck of the woods.
Officials for the Petrochem site off Ventura Avenue near the Ventura River announced that all machinery and equipment will be removed by the end of the year. Cleanup, as ordered by the EPA, has been ongoing since 2013, with residual liquid waste and contaminated soil already addressed and handled.
by Kimberly Rivers
EPA investigates state, local injection wells
The Environmental Protection Agency has put the California State oil and gas regulators: the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) on notice regarding “serious deficiencies” in the way it has been overseeing the permitting of underground injection wells, which may have compromised groundwater resources. DOGGR is a division of the California Department of Conservation.
According to the DOGGR website, injection wells can be used for enhanced oil field recovery processes like waterflood, steamflood and cyclic steam injection, as well as oil field wastewater disposal. All of these wells are called Class II injection wells and are regulated by DOGGR through an agreement with the EPA. The Class II designation is a special label for injection wells associated with oil and natural gas production.
The EPA is now requiring DOGGR to investigate thousands of wells across the state,
including about two dozen wells in Ventura County, some of which are in Upper Ojai, near the Sespe Condor Sanctuary and in the South Mountain area, along highway 126. Many of these wells are operated by Vintage Petroleum (now called California Resources Corporation Inc.).
Underground injection disposal wells are used by oil-field operators to dispose of all sorts of oil-field waste, from drilling mud to flowback fluids from hydraulic fracturing — it all can be injected into these wells. Years ago, the EPA granted authority to DOGGR to oversee these types of wells in California. In some states, the EPA still retains this primary authority. It has now come to light that in some cases DOGGR appears to have permitted wells to operate over aquifers, which, according to federal law, should have been protected.
These disposal wells work because the oil-field waste is actually absorbed into the underground formation, including underground aquifers. Many of the wells were regular oil and gas production wells used to extract oil and gas, but have now been converted to disposal. Over the past several years, county staff, local DOGGR staff and countless industry representatives have testified at public hearings before the Ventura County Planning Commission and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors that DOGGR has rigorous oversight of these wells and the aquifers are properly protected.
The rules about these injection wells are based on protections created by the Federal Safe Drinking Water Act, which is meant to ensure that aquifers with the potential to be used for drinking water or irrigation are protected. The EPA’s definition of an underground source of drinking water is any aquifer with less than 10,000 parts per million (ppm) total dissolved solids (TDS). The EPA has determined that injection wells in Ventura County have operated in aquifers with less than 10,000 ppm, less than 3,000 ppm and aquifers with unknown amounts of TDS, making further testing necessary. An aquifer can also be found exempt if it is determined that it is likely to never be used as a drinking water source. Basically, if an aquifer is really salty, really briny, it is exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act, and injection disposal wells are allowed there. According to the EPA, DOGGR has allowed Class II wells to operate in aquifers that are not exempt or for which the levels of TDS are unknown. This raises serious questions about whether aquifers that have the potential to be used as drinking water have been put in jeopardy.
The EPA has laid out requirements for DOGGR and timelines for completing them, including a process whereby the state is now required to collect and consider new data “on the water quality of these aquifers.” The new data will allow the state to determine whether those injection wells should be allowed to continue to operate. The EPA goes on to state, “No new wells should be authorized in an aquifer prior to the conclusion of this process for that aquifer.”
According to DOGGR, there are 50,000 operating injection wells in the state, and since 75 percent of the state’s oil comes from enhanced oil recovery methods — like steamflood — the division recognizes the importance of protecting California’s aquifers in the midst of a very active industry.
“The protection of California’s aquifers from contamination is a matter of the highest priority for the Division, and of special importance given the state of emergency resulting from our unprecedented drought,” stated Bohlen in the letter, replacing Tim Kustic last year, Bohlen is a relatively new director at DOGGR, and continuing, “The Division acknowledges that in the past it has approved UIC projects in zones with aquifers lacking exemptions.” DOGGR has notified the EPA of the process it will be instituting to examine the aquifers and injection wells in question. The review process will cover 30,000 wells. The State Water Board is also participating in the review process.
A few dozen protesters gathered on Feb. 13 in front of the Ventura College Performing Arts Center to voice their support for a ban on hydraulic fracturing. The protest took place just prior to the public hearing on the statewide draft environmental impact report.
Cancer causing chemical found in fracking flowback fluid
On the heels of this EPA investigation into injection wells, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), a national nonprofit environmental organization, has released information it obtained by examining state records, which show cancer-causing chemicals in the wastewater following hydraulic fracturing.
Beginning last year, oil operators who use hydraulic fracturing (high-pressure injection of sand, chemicals and water to fracture the underground reservoir to release more oil and gas) are required to test the flow back fluid, which comes up out of the well with the retrieved oil and gas, after the hydraulic fracturing process. Prior to 2014, they were not required to perform these tests, let alone report them to the state. Senate Bill 4 (SB4), the Pavley Bill (Sen. Fran Pavley, D-Agoura Hills) requires this testing and report. The records examined by the center show high levels of benzene and chromium-6 were found in many of the flowback fluids. Both chemicals are considered toxic and cancer-causing. If chromium-6 rings a bell, that’s because it is the chemical that contaminated the water in Hinkley, California, of Erin Brockovich fame.
The CBD also found that about 100 test results are missing from the state records. DOGGR is required to obtain these test results pursuant to SB4. A center spokesperson indicated that several of those missing test results are from frack jobs that occurred in Ventura County.
The EPA and the state now know that oil-field waste disposal has occurred in nonexempt aquifers, which have the potential to be used as drinking water. That fact, paired with the findings of the center confirming the presence of benzene and chromium-6 in flowback fluids indicates that cancer causing chemicals are likely to have been injected into disposal injection wells located in aquifers in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The center has also announced that it has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of the Interior “for violating three federal laws” when it gave rubber-stamp approval to offshore hydraulic fracturing at platforms off California’s Coast without analyzing the threats of pollution from the process. According to the center, more than 200 wells have been “fracked” in state and federal waters off the coast, and the oil industry has federal permission to release more than “9 billion gallons of wastewater,” which can include flowback fluid from hydraulic fracturing, into the ocean off the coast of California.
“Every offshore frack increases the threat to our fragile ocean ecosystems,” said Miyoko Sakashita, an attorney and director of the oceans program with the center. “The Interior Department is turning a blind eye while oil companies frack wells and dump chemicals offshore.”
Oil field waste disposal in Oxnard
In 2013 (the most recent numbers available) Ventura County oil producers extracted 9 million barrels of oil. With a barrel equaling about 42 gallons, that is 376.9 million gallons of oil. But along with all that oil comes a heck of a lot of water, 66.7 million barrels to be exact, or 2.8 billion gallons. And it’s gotta go somewhere.
If only it were drinkable water. But this produced water has been trapped and mixed underground with the oil and gas for millions of years and is not usable for much. It is very salty, and the water that flows back up the well can contain radioactive compounds and be mixed with the various chemicals and substances oil well operators use for cleaning, clearing, lubricating and completing a well. Produced water can contain fluids and chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing and other well-stimulation processes.
Some operators, like Aera Energy (co-owned by Shell and ExxonMobil), say they are able to recycle and reuse most of the produced water they collect, but others have to dispose of it. Some operators have their own private injection disposal wells; there are 583 such wells in the county. If they don’t have their own disposal wells, or they have more waste than they can dispose of on their own, they can truck their waste to Anterra Energy Inc. Anterra operates the only two commercial disposal injection wells in the county.
The other facility authorized to handle such waste, located in Santa Paula — usually known as Santa Clara Waste Water or Southern California Waste Water (SCWW) but listed on its website as Green Compass — has been closed following an explosion last fall. That leaves Anterra to service the operators who need to dispose of Class II waste; the other option is to truck it a couple hundred miles away. Anterra has been under scrutiny recently regarding citations for exceeding the number of truck trips allowed by its conditional use permit (CUP) and due to a criminal investigation being conducted by the Ventura County District Attorney. While no charges have been filed yet, the investigation has aimed attention at this company that some say was operating under the radar.
“It’s a new day in Oxnard,” said Carmen Ramirez, city of Oxnard mayor pro-tem. She spoke during public comment at the Jan. 27 hearing before the Ventura County Board of Supervisors: “We are paying attention to our natural resources, our quality of life.” She asked the Board to “consider public safety and public health in all policies. That is always the No. 1 job of government everywhere.”
Ramirez was speaking to the Supervisors regarding Anterra’s application to amend the Non-Coastal Zoning Ordinance (NCZO). In 2000 the Board approved a change in the NCZO that prohibited oil-field waste facilities in areas zoned Agriculture Exclusive. That change affected one company, Anterra. At its Oxnard location Anterra operates two Class II waste disposal injection wells. The oil-field waste, defined as “non-hazardous,” comes from small and large operators throughout the county and surrounding areas. That 2000 unanimous vote by the Board of Supervisors created a tenuous situation for the company. It is now operating in a legal nonconforming status, which will become an issue when it needs to renew its CUP, which expires in 2018.
In order to qualify for a renewal of the CUP, Anterra would need a change in the zoning ordinance. It has applied, as anyone can do, for an amendment. The proposed change was tailored very tightly so as to apply only to Anterra. It included several conditions — injection disposal wells in agriculture exclusive zoned areas would only be allowed on sites where existing oil production facilities are operating, where suitable roads already exist, and where the ground is already disturbed. Anterra emphasized that the change would not result in the loss of any agricultural land.
The Board voted 4-1 against the proposed amendment, sending a strong message that this type of use is “incompatible and inconsistent” with agricultural use of the land. While this may please those wanting the environment and public health to be put first, others point out the long-term effects on jobs.
“I have about 40 employees in the county, eight to 10 for Anterra. We’ve had to cut their hours already, due to limitations set by the county,” said Brent Smith with Smith & Sons Concrete based in Ventura, speaking during public comment before the final decision was rendered. “If this amendment is not passed I will have to lay people off. There is a huge negative trickle-down impact. There are real men with families. Keep Anterra in business. Keep jobs in the county.”
“We have been talking about the economic perspective of Ventura County and jobs, but we also have a brand of Ventura County, and it’s agriculture,” said Supervisor Linda Parks, District 2, during board comment after the public hearing was closed. “You want people to associate agriculture as clean, healthy and good for you. And to be that waste facility for Orange County, Los Angeles County, everywhere that they would come here because there aren’t that many facilities to put their produced water.” She pointed out the options for waste facilities in the open space zone and in the industrial zones. Parks referred to the staff report, which did state that this type of disposal was not “optimal” land use.
Supervisor John Zaragoza, District 5, spoke about his strong concerns regarding air emissions from the site that could affect the thousands of people living around the facility. “The Anterra site is close to Lemonwood (residential area), an elementary school with 800 students. I don’t have confidence that an explosion will not happen there in Oxnard (like what happened in Santa Paula),” said Zaragoza. “Oxnard has been the dumping ground.”
“The AE [agriculture exclusive] zone is the prime farmland in the county, which we do want to protect and the quality we want to protect and the perception and the brand of Ventura county agriculture land is something we want to protect also,” said Parks.
The only current supervisor who was on the Board in 2000 is Supervisor Kathy Long, District 3. She agreed with Parks and said that in 2000 the brand of the county was what the Board was striving to protect.
The board voted four to one against allowing the proposed amendment to move forward, with Supervisor Peter Foy, District 4, being the lone vote in favor of allowing the amendment to be examined further by county staff.
“The priority and purity of the AE zone is what the Board wanted to protect,” said Long. “That is why we removed this use (in 2000).”
Anterra officials declined to comment.
“We are trying to protect Ag, we should be saying we are trying to protect oil too,” said Foy. “Our job is to support business.”
Oil and the air, Upper Ojai and Simi Valley
“We have a complete air quality (agency) that monitors the individual site,” said Foy during public comment at that Jan. 27 hearing, who was indicating that air emissions from oil and gas facilities were exposing residents to potential toxins. “If that is really going on … that is why we have this department. These kinds of things are not being emitted.”
Ron Whitehurst, a resident of Ventura, small-business owner and member of the Ventura Climate Hub, spoke about a recent air quality study release by Earthworks, a national nonprofit organization aimed at protecting communities from potential health impacts from oil and gas production. “The report found about 15 compounds coming off of these wells, and a number of these are of health concerns defined by the State of California under Prop. 65 as chemicals that cause reproductive harm or cause cancer,” said Whitehurst.
The study he is referring to is Californians at Risk; An Analysis of Health Threats From Oil and Gas Pollution in Two Communities. The communities included in the study are Lost Hills in Kern County and Upper Ojai. The study involved using an infrared FLIR (forward looking infrared) camera, which detects plumes coming from tanks, wells or other equipment. These plumes are invisible to the eye. Once a source of emissions is detected, an air sample is taken using a SUMMA canister, a sterile container, which is transported to an independent laboratory for analysis. The final component of the study involved a health survey of residents in the area. The results found 15 chemicals with known health impacts that are associated with oil and gas activities. Earthworks California Director Jhon Arbelaez said the study should be seen as a “snapshot” and that while it cannot directly link the symptoms experienced by residents with exposure to emissions from oil and gas facilities, it should indicate a need for further study.
Study can be viewed here: www.earthworksaction.org/files/publications/CaliforniansAtRiskFINAL.pdf
“Where ever there is oil and gas development, there are risks,” said state Sen. Hannah Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, responding to the Earthworks study. “We need to identify risks, and be responsive to protect public health.” She said state agencies need to take the lead in addressing the potential for health impacts from various aspects of oil and gas productions.
“Following state guidelines, we have no sources in Ventura County showing significant risks,” said Mike Villegas, air pollution control officer with Ventura County Air Pollution Control District. The state guidelines call out various compounds and amounts that exceed healthy limits. “If something comes of this study, we will take it seriously, it is our mission to protect air quality and public health,” adding that more time is needed to review the study and coordinate with the Public Health Department.
Earlier this month the District held a workshop regarding a proposed rule amendment that would remove a financial hardship exemption from the requirements for vapor recovery systems at oil facilities, and provide other rules such as a 300-foot setback requirement for “sensitive receptors.” The need for this change arose when two neighboring homeowners in Simi Valley, Kevin Tohill and Andy Brody, became aware of potential health impacts from emissions coming from facilities a few hundred feet from their homes. The situation is complicated by the fact that the oil operator, C.R. Barnett, recently passed away, and it remains unclear if there are any named heirs to take over his lease. There have been lawsuits and charges of slander and visits to the emergency room after Tohill was exposed to an unidentified odor, after which he experienced breathing problems and other health effects. While Tohill and Brody could have easily consented to the proposed amendment as offered by district officials, they took issue with the fact that the rule is crafted as a response to an “odor issue.”
“We are proposing revisions in response to fumes,” said Chris Frank, supervisor in the rule development wing of the district, during his opening remarks at the amendment workshop on Jan. 21. “We are proposing to eliminate the exemption for portable tanks to head off other odor issues.”
Tohill and Brody point to the fact that some emissions may be odorless, and they are concerned with more than just odors. The district suggested requiring of a 300-foot setback, the same as is used in the county by the agricultural commissioner. But Tohill and Brody emphasized that emissions could have negative health impacts beyond their property lines.
“Do you realize there is more of a problem here than an odor problem?” asked Brody.
“There are concerns about toxins and other things,” said Frank.
“My email to you this morning raised the issue of the toxic, cancerous chemicals that are being released from this facility,” said Brody. “I didn’t hear you mention that aspect, and the environmental hazard and the health-and-safety risk and hazard that it presents to the families living right there.”
“Our industry does have a toxic hot-spots program,” said Frank. “We have looked at all facilities in the county and analyzed those that do cause a toxic hazard to residents. This facility did not meet that requirement; it didn’t rise to that level.”
The 300-foot setback used in agriculture is based on a need to protect from odors, not necessarily toxic fumes, which may or may not have an odor, say Tohill and Brody.
A statewide draft environmental impact report (DEIR) examining impacts related to oil and gas activities was released in January and found that “Guidelines normally discourage sources of odors or toxic emissions near sensitive receptors. Typically, a radius of impact is within about 1,500 feet of land uses where human exposure is continuous, such as residential areas, worksites, schools or hospitals.”
As this story is finalized for publication district was scheduled to conduct a compliance inspection on Feb. 26 at the Simi Valley oil facility near Brody and Tohill’s homes. And a second public workshop on the proposed rule amendments related to “air pollution controls” for vapor emissions from crude oil storage tanks and wastewater separators will be held on March 3, 2 p.m. at the district meeting room, 669 County Square Drive, Ventura.
State looks at impacts for Fillmore
That draft environmental impact report was released by the California Department of Conservation, Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and is required as part of Senate Bill 4. Parts of the new laws went into effect this year, and some take effect this July, the environmental impact report process is ongoing. The draft document is over twe20,000 pages long, covering many potential impacts. Part of the document examines specific impacts of well completion processes if they are used in the Sespe Oil Field above the city of Fillmore.
“The impacts to be most concerned about are the Class I impacts,” said Jeff Kuyper, executive director of Los Padres ForestWatch. Class I impacts are defined as “significant and unavoidable,” meaning these impacts cannot be mitigated to a less than significant level. Impacts listed in this part of the report are: increasing criteria pollutants or precursor pollutants to levels that violate an air quality standard or contribute substantially to an existing or projected air quality violation, creating objectionable odors affecting a substantial number of people, increasing risks to public safety by exposing the public to accidental hazardous materials releases from pipelines.
“Look at Class II impacts, these are impacts that DOGGR believes can be mitigated to less than significant levels through the imposition of various mitigation measures,” said Kuyper. A few of these Class II impacts are: adverse impact on groundwater quality through surface spills or leaks during well stimulation; migration of well stimulation fluids or formation fluids, including gas, to protected groundwater through nonexistent or ineffective annual well seals; improper disposal of flowback in injection wells that could potentially impact groundwater quality.
“In addition to these groundwater impacts, Class II impacts include damage to roads, noise, outdoor recreation and worker safety,” said Kuyper.
The draft report also brings up issues of environmental justice. Certain impacts in the areas near Fillmore and Piru may be “borne disproportionately by low-income and minority populations of concern.”
The public comment period on the DEIR is going on now through March 16, and a series of public workshops will facilitate public input.
Written comments can be submitted before March 16 to: Ms. Adele Lagomarsino, Department of Conservation Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, 801 K St., MS 18-00, Sacramento, CA 95814
Written comments may be submitted via email; please include your name and return address in the email message.
Email messages and attachments should be sent to SB4EIR@conservation.ca.gov