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A Wastewater Company Halts Disposal at Two Sites of Groundwater Contamination

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

The closure stems from a lawsuit filed by Clean Water Action, the Center for Environmental Health, and the grassroots group Association of Irritated Residents in 2015, after the regional water board found that discharges at two facilities—Race Track Hill and Fee 34—had elevated levels of oilfield contaminants. As Pacific Standard previously reported:

As much as half of the roughly 500,000 gallons 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 per day drenching an empty hillside with produced water. [Tom Frantz, the founder of AIR] recalls staring at the green hillside as a boy, standing in stark contrast to its brown surroundings. "It was pretty shocking to realize that was oil field wastewater," he says. 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, which officials worried might 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 says. "It's our lifeblood here in Kern County. It's what replenishes our aquifers."

At both facilities, the wastewater had percolated down into the groundwater, and was inching toward high quality agriculture land. The water board issued a cease-and-desist to Valley Water, giving the company until January of 2018 to close down the facilities or clean up its act.

But 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," Clean Water Action's Andrew Grinberg told 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.'"

According to Clean Water Action, Valley Water halted discharges at the two facilities on January 3rd, 2019. The water that would have been disposed of there is now being injected into underground aquifers that are not used for drinking water—another controversial disposal method, according to many environmentalists and California residents. Elsewhere, Valley Water is still dumping wastewater into open air, unlined pits known as percolation ponds, where wastewater is left to percolate through the ground or evaporate into the air. At one such facility known as the McKittrick 1 and 1-3 ponds, a plume of wastewater now extends more than two miles eastward toward agricultural land in the Central Valley. But Valley Water has so far managed to fend off the water board's efforts to shut down the facility. California is one of the last oil states in the nation where such ponds are still permitted.

"This practice has contaminated drinking and irrigation water, yet regulators continue to allow oil companies to cut corners and dump their waste into the environment, a disposal method banned in several other oil and gas states," Grinberg said in a statement on Tuesday. "At least at these two facilities the public has been able to force one bad actor to change their behavior where regulators have failed to protect groundwater."