Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

October 14, 2014

Massive dumping of wastewater into aquifers shows Big Oil's power in California



Massive dumping of wastewater into aquifers shows Big Oil's power in California 

Oil industry illegally injected nearly 3 billion gallons of wastewater 

by Dan Bacher 
Censored News

As the oil industry spent record amounts on lobbying in Sacramento and made record profits, documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity reveal that almost 3 billion gallons of oil industry wastewater were illegally dumped into Central California aquifers that supply drinking water and irrigation water for farms. 

The Center said the wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of waste contaminated with fracking (hydraulic fracturing) fluids and other pollutants. (

The documents also reveal that Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board testing found high levels of arsenic, thallium and nitrates, contaminants sometimes found in oil industry wastewater, in water-supply wells near these waste-disposal operations. 

The illegal dumping took place in a state where Big Oil is the most powerful corporate lobby and the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) is the most powerful corporate lobbying organization, alarming facts that the majority of the public and even many environmental activists are not aware of. 

An analysis of reports filed with the California Secretary of State shows that the oil industry collectively spent over $63 million lobbying California policymakers between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2014. The Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA), led by President Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the former chair of the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create so-called "marine protected areas" in Southern California, topped the oil industry lobby spending with $26,969,861. 

The enormous influence that the oil lobby exerts over legislators, agency leaders, the Governor's Office and state and federal regulatory officials is the reason why Big Oil has been able to contaminate groundwater aquifers, rivers and ocean waters in California for decades with impunity. The contamination of aquifers becomes even more alarming when one considers that California is now reeling from a record drought where people, farms, fish and wildlife are suffering from extremely low conditions in reservoirs, rivers and streams. 

Hollin Kretzmann, a Center attorney, criticized state regulators for failing to do their job of protecting precious water supplies from oil industry pollution - and urged Governor Jerry Brown to take action to halt the environmentally destructive practice of fracking in California. (

"Clean water is one of California’s most crucial resources, and these documents make it clear that state regulators have utterly failed to protect our water from oil industry pollution," said Kretzmann. "Much more testing is needed to gauge the full extent of water pollution and the threat to public health. But Governor Brown should move quickly to halt fracking to ward off a surge in oil industry wastewater that California simply isn’t prepared to dispose of safely.” 

Kretzmann said the State Water Resources Control Board "confirmed beyond doubt" that at least nine wastewater disposal wells have been injecting waste into aquifers that contain high-quality water that is supposed to be protected under federal and state law. (

"Thallium is an extremely toxic chemical commonly used in rat poison," according to a statement from the Center. "Arsenic is a toxic chemical that can cause cancer. Some studies show that even low-level exposure to arsenic in drinking water can compromise the immune system’s ability to fight illness." 

“Arsenic and thallium are extremely dangerous chemicals,” said Timothy Krantz, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Redlands. “The fact that high concentrations are showing up in multiple water wells close to wastewater injection sites raises major concerns about the health and safety of nearby residents.” 

The Center obtained a letter from the State Water Resources Control Board to the federal Environmental Protection Agency stating that the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board has confirmed that injection wells have been dumping oil industry waste into aquifers that are legally protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. 

The State Water Board also concedes that another 19 wells may also have contaminated protected aquifers, and dozens more have been injecting waste into aquifers of unknown quality. 

"The Central Valley Water Board tested eight water-supply wells out of more than 100 in the vicinity of these injection wells," according to the Center. "Arsenic, nitrate and thallium exceeded the maximum contaminant level in half the water samples." 

The Vote No on Prop. 1 (Water Bond) Campaign responded to the Center's release of the documents by pointing out the irony of the fact that the same Legislature that nearly unanimously voted to put the water bond on the November ballot also rejected a fracking moratorium in California 

"Prop 1 folks tout how it will provide funding to clean up groundwater in the SJ Valley," according to a statement from the campaign. "This is something we want to see too. But if fracking is unregulated and fracking wells are already leaking, shouldn't we work on the fracking moratorium first? Or at least simultaneously. And the legislators who passed Prop 1 voted against the fracking moratorium." 

It is no surprise that the State Senators who voted no on the fracking moratorium bill received 14 times more money in campaign contributions from the oil industry than those who voted no on the measure. (

Restore the Delta responded to the report also: "At RTD, we have always known that water needs to be shared from the Delta- we argue that it must be at levels that are sustainable for the estuary. When we see items like this, however, it's hard to maintain that reasonable stance. We predicted a year ago that SJ Valley fracking sites would contaminate groundwater, making the region more dependent on water exports." 

Long term threat posed by waste water disposal may be even worse 

The Center said that while the current extent of contamination is cause for "grave concern," the long-term threat posed by the unlawful wastewater disposal may be even more devastating. 

"Benzene, toluene and other harmful chemicals used in fracking fluid are routinely found in flowback water coming out of oil wells in California, often at levels hundreds of times higher than what is considered safe, and this flowback fluid is sent to wastewater disposal wells. Underground migration of chemicals like benzene can take years," the Center stated. 

The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) shut down 11 Kern County oil field injection wells and began scrutinizing almost 100 others that were potentially contaminating protected groundwater. The Environmental Protection Agency, which has ultimate legal authority over underground injection, ordered state officials to provide an assessment of the water-contamination risk within 60 days, and the letter from the state Water Board confirms that illegal contamination has occurred at multiple sites. 

California’s oil and gas fields produce billions of gallons of contaminated wastewater each year, much of which is injected underground. California has an estimated 2,583 wastewater injection wells, of which 1,552 are currently active, according to the Center. 

Wastewater injection wells are located throughout the state, from the Chico area in Northern California to Los Angeles in Southern California and even include offshore wells near Santa Barbara. Kern County in the Southern San Joaquin Valley is home to the largest number of oil wells in California. 

The fracking wastewater poses a huge threat not only to human health, but to fish including endangered and threatened salmon and steelhead and wildlife as the water makes its way to rivers and streams. The last thing that imperiled salmon and steelhead populations need, as they face a combination of drought and poor management of the state's reservoirs and rivers by the state and federal agencies, is the threat of increased pollution of their habitat by benzene, toluene and other harmful fracking chemicals, 

A recent study by the US Drought Monitor reported that 58 percent of California is experiencing “exceptional drought,” the most serious category on the agency’s five-level scale. A fracking job can require as much as 140,000 to 150,000 gallons of water per day. (

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Oil industry power and money dominates California politics 

As an investigative journalist who has written many articles documenting oil industry power and money in California politics, I find it extremely important to review recent financial data on the oil industry in California. This data reveals how the regulated have captured the regulators in California, just like Wall Street big banks captured the regulatory apparatus. 

While there are many powerful industries based in California, ranging from the computer and high tech industry to corporate agribusiness, no industry has more influence over the state's environmental policies than Big Oil. Unfortunately, most of the public and even many environmental activists have no idea how much influence the oil industry has on the Governor, the Legislature and state panels and environmental processes in the state. 

An ongoing analysis of reports filed with the California Secretary of State shows that the oil industry collectively spent over $63 million lobbying California policymakers between January 1, 2009 and June 30, 2014. The Western States Petroleum Association led the oil industry lobby spending with $26,969,861. 

"The oil industry is spending over $1 million per month lobbying Sacramento, with the Western States Petroleum Association (WSPA) as the second overall leading spender so far in 2014 with almost $3 million spent in the past six months," according to Stop Fooling California (, an online and social media public education and awareness campaign that highlights oil companies efforts to mislead and confuse Californians. "Chevron, with $1.3 million spent so far in 2014, is also among the top five. If money speaks, Big Oil has the loudest voice in politics." 

WSPA was California’s second overall leading lobbyist spender, with $1.5 million spent in the second quarter of 2014. This is the second largest quarter going back to January 2009. 

WSPA is on pace to exceed the previous record annual (2012) total in 2014. WSPA has paid over $2 million to KP Public Affairs, the state’s highest paid lobbying firm, during the current (2013-14) legislative session, according to the group. WSPA spent $4,670,010 on lobbying in 2013 and $5,698,917 in 2012. 

Chevron is the fifth overall spender in California through the second quarter of 2014, having spent $784,757 that quarter, an increase of nearly $300,000 over the prior quarter. 

Yet these millions of dollars are just chump change to Big Oil, since the five big oil companies made over $93 billion in profits in 2013. This year, Big Oil's profits are estimated to be over $72 billion to date, based on information from The Center for American Progress (

A report released on April 1, 2014 by the ACCE Institute and Common Cause reveals that Big Oil has spent $143.3 million on political candidates and campaigns – nearly $10 million per year and more than any other corporate lobby – over the past fifteen years. (

But Big Oil exerts its influence not just by making campaign contributions, but also by lobbying legislators at the State Capitol. The oil industry spent $123.6 million to lobby elected officials in California from 1999 through 2013. This was an increase of over 400 percent since the 1999-2000 legislative session, when the industry spent $4.8 million. In 2013-2014 alone, the top lobbyist employer, Western States Petroleum Association, spent $4.7 million. 

Big Oil's enormous influence over the California Legislature was exposed when Governor Jerry Brown in September 2013 signed Senator Fran Pavley's Senate Bill 4, the green light for fracking bill, after oil industry lobbyists gutted the already weak bill to "regulate" fracking in California. The bill “undermines existing environmental law and leaves Californians unprotected from fracking and other dangerous and extreme fossil fuel extraction techniques,” stated Californians Against Fracking, a statewide coalition of over 100 organizations now calling for a moratorium on fracking. 

Oil industry officials serve on regulatory and advisory panels 

The oil industry also exerts its muscle by serving on and dominating state and federal regulatory and advisory panels. For example, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, the President of the Western States Petroleum Association, chaired the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) Initiative Blue Ribbon Task Force to create alleged "marine protected areas" in Southern California. She also served on the task forces to create "marine protected areas" on the Central Coast, North Central Coast and South Coast. 

It is no surprise that the so-called "marine protected areas" created under the helm of Reheis-Boyd and other corporate operatives failed to protect the ocean from fracking offshore oil drilling, pollution, corporate aquaculture, military testing and all human impacts on the ocean other than sustainable fishing and gathering. 

Ironically, while WSPA President Catherine Reheis-Boyd served on the task forces to "protect" the ocean, the same oil industry that the "marine guardian" represents was conducting environmentally destructive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations off the Southern California coast. 

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and media investigations by Associated Press and reveal that the ocean has been fracked at least 203 times in the past 20 years, including the period from 2004 to 2012 that Reheis-Boyd served as a "marine guardian.” ( 

To make matters worse, Reheis-Boyd also serves on a federal government marine protected areas panel. The National Marine Protected Areas Center website lists Reheis-Boyd as a member of a 20 member MPA (Marine Protected Areas) Advisory Committee. 

In addition to the oil industry spending exerting its enormous power through campaign contributions, lobbying legislators and serving on state and federal regulatory panels, the oil industry also has set up "Astroturf" groups, including the California Drivers Alliance and Fueling California, to fight against environmental regulations protecting our air, water, land, fish, wildlife and human health. 

"The set up is basically this: some Californian (who is supposed to be your proxy) regurgitates Big Oil talking points that don't resemble reality, equating protecting Big Oil's profits with protecting the people," according to Stop Fooling California. 

Most recently, the Monterey Herald reported that San Benito United for Energy Independence, the oil and gas industry-funded group behind a slate of ads airing throughout the Central Coast on TV and radio, raised more than $1.7 million to fight Measure J, an initiative to ban fracking in San Benito Count that goes before the voters on November 4. "While the group touts its local ties, none of the money funding Measure J's opposition comes from San Benito County," said reporter Jason Hoppin. 

"San Benito United is entirely funded by an industry-backed group called Californians for Energy Independence. Oil companies have been pumping millions into that group in the last few months, including $2.5 million from San Ramon-based Chevron, $2.1 million from San Ardo-based Aera Energy and $2 million from Houston-based Occidental Petroleum," said Hoppin. (
Politicians like Governor Jerry Brown like to portray California as a "green" leader, but the reality is that the oil industry, along with agribusiness and other corporate lobbies, exerts enormous influence over the state's environmental policies, making the claims that California is a "green" state highly dubious.

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