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EPA Urged to Shut Down Hundreds of Oil Industry Wastewater Wells Threatening California Aquifers

Regulators investigating 532 wells over illegal dumping.

San Francisco— The Center for Biological Diversity today called on the Environmental Protection Agency to immediately shut down hundreds of injection wells that are illegally dumping oil industry wastewater into scores of California aquifers, including some that supply water for drinking and farming irrigation.

Today’s letter urges the EPA to issue an administrative order requiring operators of these disposal wells to cease operations to protect aquifers from further damage and comply with the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. “In the midst of an unprecedented drought and when so many Californians lack access to safe, clean drinking water, it is outrageous to allow contamination of drinking and irrigation water to continue. It is never acceptable to allow the contamination of drinking and irrigation water with industrial wastewater,” the letter says.

Recently revealed documents from the EPA and the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources show that state and federal regulators have investigated at least 532 oil industry injection wells across the state — from Monterey County and sites near San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara to Kern and Los Angeles counties — over concerns they are illegally dumping wastewater into at scores of aquifers containing water that should be protected under state and federal laws.

“California’s drinking water aquifers shouldn’t be garbage dumps for the oil industry,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute. “It’s legally required and just common sense that every well injecting wastewater illegally be shut down immediately to avoid further damage.”

Last summer, the state’s oil division issued emergency shutdown orders for multiple injection wells in Kern County after it came to light that they were injecting wastewater into aquifers containing high-quality drinking water. But the newly revealed documents show that hundreds of other injection wells dumping wastewater into protected aquifers are still in operation.

An EPA letter from December 2014 reveals the seriousness of the problem, but fails to order the immediate shut-down of all wells injecting into protected aquifers. “Given the need to resolve the program’s serious deficiencies in a timely matter, EPA has strengthened oversight and support of the program,” the EPA letter says.

Oil industry wastewater is an extremely salty fluid that typically contains a wide range of contaminants and dangerous chemicals associated with oil production. It can also contain fracking chemicals linked to cancer and other serious health concerns.

Up to half of all new oil wells in California are fracked, according to a recent study. Flowback fluid from fracked wells often contains dangerous levels of cancer-causing benzene, according to state-mandated tests.

“This water contamination crisis is just the latest consequence of the state’s failure to protect Californians from oil industry pollution,” said Siegel. “Gov. Brown hasn’t heeded calls to protect our air, water and health, so we need the EPA to take immediate action.”