The Clean Water Blog

Oil Wastewater Pits Decision Delayed

California’s water regulators are finally cracking down on the harmful practice of dumping toxic oil wastewater into open pits, although slowly. Oil companies prefer this disposal method because it's cheap and easy. Not surprisingly, it's also the most environmentally damaging—hazardous chemicals can leach into drinking water aquifers—and it can impact public health.

The oil industry essentially did what it wanted for decades with flimsy government oversight.

What’s the scale of the problem? Well, it’s finally become too big to ignore.

In California, there are over one thousand wastewater disposal pits, the vast majority are located in the Central Valley. Over 800 pits are either unpermitted or have out-of-date permits. Clean Water Action's report this year helped  expose this practice

In response to pressure from Clean Water Action and others, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has drafted "general orders" to govern how pits are to be used. The adoption of the general orders will help the Regional Board regulate pits, making sure that all pits have a permit to operate.

So on one hand, the general orders are a mechanism to improve the present deplorable situation, including closing some of the worst pits. On the other hand, the orders will allow the continued use of a number of pits.

This ignores the recommendation from California Council on Science and Technology (a non-partisan, NGO, established by the Legislature almost 30 years ago to provide objective advice from scientists and research institutions on important policy issues): "If the presence of hazardous concentrations of chemicals cannot be ruled out, discharging oil wastewater into open pits should be phased out." Clean Water Action strongly supports that position.

A few days ago, the Board delayed adopting the general orders because of several concerns, some raised by Clean Water Action and others--that environmental impact assessments are required for existing pits to determine whether they should be allowed to operate--and some by industry--that mom-and-pop operators will be driven out of business. Low oil prices, however, are the main reason that some companies, small and larger, are going under.

The orders will likely be amended, and brought up for a vote in the coming months. We will continue to call for a halt to this practice and for strengthening the require environmental impact assessments, not allowing degradation of water quality without an analysis to determine if this is in the "best interests of the people of California," and requiring an expanded number of toxic chemicals to be monitored and tested.

At the same time, there are aspects of the orders that are strong and must be adopted. The oil industry is of course working to weaken the orders and has called for less rigorous monitoring, and wants to be able to dump fracking wastewater into pits. The Board must hold strong and not cave to these demands.

As usual, the oil industry's main motivation is reducing its costs, regardless of the environmental and health impacts. We believe the basic operating principle should be the polluter pays and that we must prioritize the protection of our water. Who will prevail? Stay tuned...