Has Our Food Been Contaminated by Chevron’s Wastewater?

Tom Frantz, a leading environmental activists in the San Joaquin Valley and a local  almond farmer, observes the Tom Frantz, a leading environmental activist in the San Joaquin Valley and a local almond farmer, observes the “polishing pond.” (Photo: Daniel Ross)

Acetone and hydrocarbons found in petroleum have once again been detected in the oil field wastewater that is used to irrigate oranges, table grapes and other crops in California’s Kern Valley, according to findings in a new report issued by Chevron itself.

The report also highlights how oil companies other than Chevron supply the program with wastewater. Until now, Chevron has been the only company widely and publicly associated with the project.

According to David Ansolabehere, general manager of the Cawelo Water District, the Valley Water Management Company – a nonprofit corporation providing oil field waste treatment and disposal services to independent oil producers in the Kern County – also discharges oil field wastewater into one of the ponds where the wastewater is contained before being distributed to farms. He communicated to Truthout by email.

These latest findings have reignited fears that crops grown with this wastewater in the Kern Valley, a region at the vanguard of the nation’s top agricultural producers, have been tainted by the potentially harmful contaminants found in the water.

Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer for the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board’s Fresno office, said he is “concerned” about the presence of acetone, a powerful industrial solvent, in the irrigation water.

“But at the kind of concentrations we’re talking about, it does not appear that there is a huge issue,” he said.

Nevertheless, in order to look at any possible long-term human health consequences of using oil field wastewater to irrigate food crops, a team of food safety experts has been convened to look at the issue.

“We had our first meeting Monday. And we will be convening additional meetings,” said Rodgers. “We are assembling all the data, and we will be providing them with all the data so that experts in food safety can assist us in determining if there is an issue here and whether they see anything that indicates whether immediate action is needed.”

In March, the local Regional Water Quality Control Board ordered Chevron to conduct comprehensive testing of treated oil field wastewater in two holding ponds nestled on the edge of the Kern River Oil Field.

The water piped into these ponds originates from local oil fields – Chevron, as well as the other local oil companies, use the water as part of their oil extraction processes. Though Rodgers maintains that the vast majority of the wastewater does not originate from oil fields where fracking currently occurs.

Once treated, the water is diluted and sold by the local Cawelo Water District to farmers to irrigate crops as part of one of the largest water reuse programs in the state. Approximately 10 percent of farmland in the Kern Valley is irrigated with this treated wastewater.

(Click here to read the report.)

But the report, released Wednesday, shows that acetone, an industrial solvent that can be used in oil well maintenance, as well as certain petroleum hydrocarbons, have once again shown up among a number of contaminants in the irrigation water, mirroring the findings from a series of tests previously conducted by Scott Smith, chief scientist for Water Defense, a nonprofit environmental organization.

“The acetone, benzene, and xylene detected by Chevron are consistent with the Water Defense testing of the baseline oil-water,” said Smith.

For the past two years, Smith has studied the water flowing along an eight-mile canal that channels the wastewater from the two holding ponds – where Chevron conducted its tests – to farms and fields. Smith detected another industrial solvent, methylene chloride, during his original tests, which comprised 10 different sample sites along the canal. According to Smith, it’s unlikely that Chevron tested for methylene chloride, a known carcinogen.

The agency Chevron hired to conduct the latest tests examined water at five different sites across both holding ponds. The levels of benzene and xylene were found to be below reporting limits at the sample site that would most closely resemble the quality of irrigation water used by farmers.

But because the levels of contaminants listed in Chevron’s report are generally lower than those Smith had detected along the distribution canal, he is concerned that additional freshwater was added to potentially “dilute contaminants to levels beneath the detection limits of the testing performed by Chevron.”

“The bottom line is, these chemicals should not be in the water,” he said.

Rodgers flatly denies charges that the results of the latest tests are skewed.

“The water was not over-diluted,” he said.

Ansolabehere offered no comment on the report at this time, and Chevron has yet to respond to multiple requests by Truthout for a response.

What the findings have done, however, is once again pick open the wounds of a debate at the very heart of the issue: Are these same chemicals making their way into the food chain?

Damage to Humans, Crops and Soil

The The “polishing pond” where filtered oil field wastewater is contained before being diluted and and used to irrigate crops. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

On a dry bluff overlooking the scorched open palm of Kern Valley – beside old rusting pump jacks that thump lazily in the sun and a scrap metal dump of car parts and empty trailers – sits a “polishing pond,” where filtered oil field wastewater, stained black, is collected before being diluted and used for irrigation. Thick steam rises and wafts across the surface.

The polishing pond is elevated above another larger reservoir, where the wastewater is diluted and into which the Valley Water Management Company discharges its wastewater. Across both are strung boons that filter off crude oil.

“It’s that same asphalt smell as a freshly laid road,” said Tom Frantz, a leading environmental activists in the San Joaquin Valley and a local almond farmer. Frantz refuses to use treated oil field wastewater to irrigate the trees on his farm, a property passed down his family through generations.

“You got a headache from it yet?” Frantz asked, after a few minutes. “I think if the farmers who use this water came and saw this place they would soon change their mind about using it.”

(Read a more detailed account of the filtration and dilution process here.)

A separate freshwater supply sometimes merges to further dilute the water during its route along the eight-mile, cement-lined canal to farms. Periodically, boons are stretched across the canal, skimming oil from the surface of the water. Smith recently released a video showing tar balls washed up on the side of the canal.

Before the wastewater reaches the polishing pond, it goes through a water filtration system, one frequently employed by oil and gas companies, that uses walnut shells to filter out contaminants. Smith dismisses the system as “ineffectual” in removing chemicals that are used in the modern oil extraction industry.

“Obviously the walnut shells are not working because of the chemicals and the concentrations in the water we’re finding,” said Smith, the inventor of his own water filtration system.

But until this year, the program has long been widely considered as safe.

Farmers in the Kern Valley have used treated oil field water to irrigate crops for over 20 years, and the practice is extolled as a win-win for oil producers and farmers alike – Chevron hit upon a useful way to dispose of millions of gallons of wastewater a day, while the local Cawelo Water District has found another source of water for farmers at a time when the area is parched dry through drought.

As such, the program has long been lauded by officials. Indeed, Chevron has frequently touted the initiative with promotional videos and whole-page ads in local newspapers. What is more, the water is sold cheaply to farmers at a cost “neutral” to the project. “[It] covers the cost of pumping to the point of discharge,” wrote Ansolabehere, in an email to Truthout, before Chevron released this week’s report.

With no statewide regulations governing the practice, the Cawelo Water District and Chevron both perform quarterly testing of the water, in accordance with a general order by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

“In addition to the rigorous monitoring and testing that is required, we have performed Title 22 [Drinking Water Standards] testing to which the blended water was shown to pass all requirements except Arsenic, which attenuates in the soils and does not migrate to the groundwater table,” Ansolabehere wrote.

The Title 22 testing was done earlier this year at two separate sites along the distribution canal, while a third party monitored the results of the quarterly tests, “to insure that the quality does not degrade the groundwater and in turn to protect what the water irrigates,” wrote Ansolabehere.

Around 21 million gallons of treated water a day is used on roughly 10 percent of the farmland in the Kern Valley to grow crops such as table grapes, pistachios, oranges and other citrus. And more crops than ever are being irrigated with Chevron’s wastewater in the Kern Valley, which churns out over $6 billion worth of produce a year. This year, almost half of the Cawelo Water District’s water supply will come from Chevron.

Despite the popularity of the program, many now believe such confidence to be misplaced, especially when not enough is known about the way in which the chemicals found in the wastewater interact with crops. That’s because no studies have been done on the crops to determine chemical uptake through water. Nor does the scientific community offer much insight. All of the experts contacted by Truthout noted a dearth of scientific data relating to the way in which different crops interact with the chemicals dissolved in the irrigation water.

Yet, a number of experts who examined either one or both of Smith and Chevron’s findings still expressed concern over the possible long-term impact on human health as well as the impact on the farms themselves.

“Based on these few data, as well as the evidence in the video, I think that this treated wastewater absolutely should not be going on farmland, particularly where food crops are grown,” said Murray McBride, a professor in the Soil and Crop Sciences section at Cornell University.

Because solvent chemicals such as methylene chloride are quite soluble in water, as well as being highly volatile, plants are likely to take them up freely through the roots, said McBride.

“I have concerns about crop contamination and human health, and longer term, the health of the soils,” he said. “I suspect that many more chemicals are in this wastewater than have been tested for at this point,” he said.

In 2012, the Cawelo Water District released a report showing how oil field wastewater contains saline levels more than double that of other water sources in the area. The report adds how, after blending, “the quality is … satisfactory for most agricultural uses.”

Typically, excess salts in the soil that are damaging to plants would be washed away through rain. But because of the severe drought lingering long over the valley, McBride is concerned about the long-term health of the land through sodium buildup.

“All farmers know how damaging salts are to farmland. For a few years you can get away with it. But in the long term, that has a good chance of degrading the soil’s fertility,” McBride said.

Professor Robert Hale, of the Department of Environmental and Aquatic Animal Health at the College of William and Mary, has studied the way in which sewage sludge (biosolids) affects water, air and soils. Though Hale is unfamiliar with the specifics of Chevron’s water reuse program, he is concerned, given the information in the report, that more comprehensive testing had not already been done to better gauge the potential risk for crop contamination.

“Basically, you’re taking a material that at a minimum is a fossil fuel and using it on agricultural fields and spreading it around the environment. It sounds pretty problematic,” Hale said. “It is troubling to me that they use this material to irrigate agricultural fields.”

Chemicals soluble in water, such as some of the lighter hydrocarbons, are more easily absorbed by plants, said Hale. As a result, he expects those crops with higher water contents – such as table grapes, oranges and other citrus – to be more susceptible to contamination.

“There might be some affect tainting the taste. We’re sensitive to those kind of chemicals,” he said. “The next question is then this: If it’s in the food, what are the toxicological impacts?”

Michael Hansen, senior staff scientist at the Consumers Union and an expert on food safety issues, said that Chevron should have been responsible for the disclosure of, testing for and elimination of potentially harmful contaminants in the irrigation water.

“I don’t understand, when there’s food exposed to this kind of stuff, why the onus should be on those people being exposed to these chemicals to test for these chemicals,” Hansen said.

“We want to take an aqueous mixture of known toxins and use this as irrigation water?” he added. “That makes no sense unless you know what the level of those toxins are, and how readily they might be able to be taken up by plants. A bunch of these are nasty compounds. These are not benign compounds.”

But advocates of the program have long rejected the idea that the oil field wastewater program is a hazard.

If crops are being impacted, it’s in the famers’ own interests to report any adverse effects, said Ansolabehere, again before Chevron’s report came to light.

“Farms in Cawelo have been operational for almost a hundred years and will be operational for another hundred years,” he wrote. “The owners of the farms are the best protectors of the land and would not harm their crops, their future, by being irresponsible.”

A spokesperson for the Kern County Department of Agriculture and Measurement wrote that farmers are unlikely to reach out to them with concerns about the impact of oil field wastewater on their crops, “unless the grower was submitting a report of loss based on the ‘smaller size’ or yield, etc. We have had no such reports of loss. We don’t hear about these issues from the growers, nor would it be likely that they would tell us these things.”

But many farmers that make use of the program have been vocal in their support.

“I’ve really never asked what the analysis of the water is. I just know it’s available. There hasn’t been any complaints about it. I don’t think they recommend drinking it,” said Pierucci, a local pistachio farmer, in an article in Newsweek published earlier this year.

“If [the drought] keeps up year after year, I think it would be a concern. I think the salt levels would be higher. They blend it for a reason,” Pierucci added.

Truthout reached out to the Kern County Farm Bureau numerous times for comment. They did not return calls and emails.

Contamination of the Air and Groundwater

A boon stretched across a portion of the distribution canal. (Photo: Daniel Ross)A boon stretched across a portion of the distribution canal. (Photo: Daniel Ross)

The issue of the polishing pond speaks to wider concerns over air quality and groundwater contamination in the region. Oil companies in the Kern Valley have long used unlined, open-air pits known as sumps to store oil field wastewater, leaving it to evaporate into the air and percolate into the soil.

A 2014 investigation by the environmental organization Clean Water Action found that of the 432 known sumps in the Central Valley, 85 percent were located within a mile of a surface waterway, while 20 of them were operating with out of date or nonexistent permits.

Subsequent testing by the Central Valley Water Board confirmed the presence of high levels of dangerous constituents in the water in one of the pits visited by Clean Action Water, including cancer-causing BTEX compounds, naphthalene, boron and chlorides.

The exact volume of waste disposed into unlined pits is unknown because, until the implementation of SB 1281 the beginning of this year, oil companies did not have to report where they dispose of their wastewater. But emissions from these sumps only exacerbate air quality conditions that are already some of the worst in the nation.

A 2015 report by the American Lung Association found the city of Bakersfield – situated less than 10 miles from the “polishing pond” – is the third worst ozone-polluted city in the country. Kern County is the fifth most ozone-polluted county.

Both McBride and Hale voiced concern over volatile organic compounds (VOCs) “gassing-off” from the holding ponds and the distribution canal – all of which are lined – and the affect the VOC emissions will have on those who live and work close by.

“They say that it doesn’t small as bad when it gets to the fields, but that just means it’s out-gassing into the air, and that in itself is a pollution event,” said Hale.

As a result of recent findings, a number of environmental agencies are pushing for intervention by Governor Jerry Brown.

“California grows the lion’s share of the fruits and vegetables we eat in the United States,” said Wenonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch executive director, in a written statement.

“It is inexcusable that the oil and gas industry is allowed to use American families’ dinner plates as a disposal site for toxic oil field wastewater. Governor Jerry Brown must take immediate action to protect our food by ending the use of this industrial waste for irrigation.”

Scott Smith calls for more immediate action. “Chevron have either got to shut [the program] down or filter the water properly,” he said. “It’s a threat.”

Clay Rodgers, however, sought to reassure worried consumers.

“We’re putting the food safety group together as an additional confirmation that there’s not an issue,” Rodgers said. “And if at some point it’s determined that there is an issue, then [the program] will be stopped.”