Largest Oil Wastewater Pit Facility in California to Close After Prop 65 Settlement: Statement

After dumping toxic wastewater for more than 50 years and polluting nearby groundwater, operators of McKittrick wastewater pit to cease dumping and pay penalties.

A settlement agreement announced today between watchdog groups, Association of Irritated Residents and Clean Water Fund, and oil company Sentinel Peak Resources (SPR) and oil and gas wastewater disposal company, Valley Water Management (Valley) will require the companies to stop discharges of toxic chemicals at the “McKittrick 1 and 1-3” facility on the West side of Kern County. SPR, the lone oil producer still sending wastewater to McKittrick, and Valley, the single largest operator of unlined oil and gas wastewater pits in California, agreed to the settlement after the groups filed suit under the state’s Proposition 65 safe drinking water law. The settlement is the second Proposition 65 lawsuit to limit toxic oil and gas wastewater discharge into disposal pits after a 2016 agreement with Valley to close two facilities East of Bakersfield.

The organizations sued SPR and Valley under Proposition 65 for discharges of 15 listed chemicals including arsenic, benzene, ethylbenzene, radionuclides, naphthalene and toluene into the regional aquifer, which supplies drinking and irrigation water. Under the agreement, Valley will stop the discharge of chemicals listed under Prop 65, effectively ruling out continued discharges of oil wastewater - also known as produced water. The defendants will also pay $645,000 in penalties and cost/fee reimbursements, under the settlement.

“This settlement will prevent future contamination of groundwater used by farmers and forces the oil industry to pay the full cost of waste product disposal,” said Tom Frantz, a Kern County almond farmer and head of Association of Irritated Residents. 

In recent years, regulators at the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board (CVRWQCB) have implemented more stringent standards on produced water pits, leading to the closure of a number of facilities. However, California is still the last major oil producing state to allow the use of percolation pits to dispose of the toxic byproduct of oil and gas production. The McKittrick facility had been operating since at least 1969 when it was initially permitted. Since at least 2004, however, a plume of contamination had been detected in nearby monitoring wells. The contamination has since spread at least 2 miles to the east and penetrated into the deeper regional aquifer.

“It’s a good day for California water that the largest oil wastewater pits in the country will have to shut down. Anyone who’s ever visited McKittrick 1 & 1-3 could tell you that it was an outdated and dirty facility,” said Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Fund and Clean Water Action. “Now it’s time to bring California’s oil wastewater policies into the 21st century and prohibit this polluting disposal method by closing the remaining unlined pits across Kern County. The current and ongoing droughts highlight the urgent need to do everything we can to protect our water resources.”

In July 2015 the California Council on Science and Technology (CCST), in its independent study on well stimulation, recommended that oil and gas wastewater containing harmful chemicals should not be disposed of into unlined pits. The settlement, if properly implemented, should bring the two facilities into compliance with this recommendation by September 2021, with a possible extension up to September 2022 at the latest.

“As we struggle to secure clean air and clean water for families here in the Central Valley, the last thing we need is irresponsible companies dumping their toxic water near our communities, endangering both water and air, and placing our families at risk.” said Jesus Alonso, Kern Community Organizer at Clean Water Fund and Clean Water Action. “This incredible victory is a testament to the power of community residents and allies working together to hold industry accountable and help families breathe a little easier.”

The Plaintiffs, Association of Irritated Residents and Clean Water Fund, were represented by Jason Flanders of the Aqua Terra Aeris Law Group in this action.

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