River Watch Header Image

Oil Industry Illegally Dumps Fracking Wastewater

October 6, 2015

California state documents obtained by the Center for Biological Diversity in October 2014 revealed that the oil industry had illegally dumped almost three billion gallons of wastewater from fracking (hydraulic fracturing to extract oil and gas) into central California aquifers. According to the Center for Biological Diversity report, the leaking occurred through at least nine injection disposal wells used by the oil industry to dispose of contaminated waste.

The affected aquifers supply water for human consumption and for irrigation of crops for human consumption. The documents also revealed that water supply wells located close to wastewater injection sites were tested and found to have high levels of arsenic, thallium, and nitrates, all toxic chemicals linked to the oil industry’s wastewater.

According to the documents obtained by the Center, the California State Water Resources Control Board admitted that an additional nineteen wells could have been leaking wastewater into protected aquifers. One state agency official claimed that errors in the permitting process for wastewater injection could have occurred in multiple places. Adding to the magnitude of the danger, toxic chemicals such as benzene can migrate into water sources over a period of years, making accurate risk assessment difficult.

A previous study by the Center for Biological Diversity showed that “54 percent of California’s 1,553 active and new wastewater injection wells are within 10 miles of a recently active fault (active in the past 200 years).” The findings “raise significant concerns,” this report’s authors wrote, “because the distance from a wastewater injection well to a fault is a key risk factor influencing whether a well may induce an earthquake.” Microseismic activity as a result of underground injection wells has been well documented in other states such as Oklahoma and Texas.

The Center for Biological Diversity report’s revelations about water contamination came amidst legislative deliberation to regulate fracking in California. As both Donny Shaw of MapLight and Dan Bacher for IndyBay reported in May 2014, over the past five years, the oil industry has lobbied powerfully in the California state legislature, spending over sixty-three million dollars in efforts to persuade state policymakers to permit the continuation and expansion of fracking. In May 2014, state senators rejected a fracking moratorium bill, SB 1132. The senators who voted against the moratorium received fourteen times more money in campaign contributions from the oil industry than those who voted for it. Shaw quoted MapLight figures: senators voting “No” on the moratorium bill received, on average, $24,981 from the oil and gas industry, while those who voted “Yes” received just $1,772 on average. “If the five active senators who abstained from voting—all Democrats—voted in favor, the moratorium would have passed.” The Democrats who abstained received, on average, 4.5 times as much money as those who voted “Yes.”

Although corporate media have covered debate over fracking regulations, the Center for Biological Diversity study regarding the dumping of wastewater into California’s aquifers went all but ignored at first. There appears to have been a lag of more than three months between the initial independent news coverage of the Center for Biological Diversity revelations and corporate coverage. In May 2015, the Los Angeles Times ran a front-page feature on Central Valley crops irrigated with treated oil field water; however, theLos Angeles Times report made no mention of the Center for Biological Diversity’s findings regarding fracking wastewater contamination.

In June 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released its study of the impacts of fracking on drinking water supplies. Although the EPA’s assessment identified “important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources,” it concluded that “hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” In response, Food & Water Watch issued a press release by Executive Director Wenonah Hunter, who wrote: “Sadly, the EPA study released today falls far short of the level of scrutiny and government oversight needed to protect the health and safety of the millions of American people affected by drilling and fracking for oil and gas.” Noting that the oil and gas industry refused to cooperate with the EPA on a single “prospective case study” of fracking’s impacts, Hunter concluded, “This reveals the undue influence the industry has over the government and shows that the industry is afraid to allow careful monitoring of their operations.”

Dan Bacher, “Massive Dumping of Wastewater into Aquifers Shows Big Oil’s Power in California,” IndyBay, October 11, 2014, Read article online.

“California Aquifers Contaminated with Billions of Gallons of Fracking Wastewater,” Russia Today,October 11, 2014, Read article online.

Donny Shaw, “CA Senators Voting NO on Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More from Oil & Gas Industry,” MapLight, June 3, 2014, Read article online.

Dan Bacher, “Senators Opposing Fracking Moratorium Received 14x More Money from Big Oil,” IndyBay, June 7, 2014, Read article online.

Student Researchers: Carolina de Mello (College of Marin) and Steven Feher (San Francisco State University)

Faculty Evaluators: Susan Rahman (College of Marin) and Kenn Burrows (San Francisco State University)