Explosions of toxic waste. First responders injured. District Attorney raids. $3.6 million in fines. Company owners indicted. Others flee the country to avoid prosecution.
It sounds like a bad TV movie, but it’s the status quo for Ventura County’s two now-shuttered commercial oilfield waste disposal sites, Santa Clara Waste Water and Anterra.
CFROG has long pointed out the dirty processes involved in oil drilling. When project applications are submitted, permit conditions are violated and regulators hold hearings, we are there with scientific review, legal analysis and public testimony.
Waste disposal sites deserve special scrutiny. To explain, when oil is extracted a large amount of water comes up with it. This is called “produced water” and it must be disposed of properly. Chemical-laden fluids used in hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” must also be discarded safely. Some oil operations have injection wells onsite to put this fluid back into the ground. It can also find its way into pits or is recycled. Others must dispose of it offsite.
At least 15 wastewater injection wells in Ventura County have been under investigation by the Los Angeles Regional Water Quality Control Board for injection into non-exempt aquifers. These aquifers can be sources of water for human consumption and agricultural uses.
In Ventura County, both Santa Clara Waste Water and Anterra have accepted oilfield wastes. And both companies have a long history of problems.
The Santa Clara Waste Water facility in Santa Paula is the site of a 2014 chemical explosion which left several first responders permanently disabled and unable to work. CFROG was on the scene taking photographs and collecting information from the fire department.
The company was ordered to pay $3.6 million in restitution to the victims and multiple employees of the firm were indicted, convicted or pled guilty on various charges. The facility now has an application to reopen under a new name, but the City of Oxnard has filed multiple objections. CFROG has also filed comments.
In the proposal to restart the facility, the company wants to use the old 12-mile pipeline to dispose of its toxic waste through the Oxnard Wastewater Treatment Plant.
Oxnard vehemently protested the application, citing its past detection of radioactive waste from Santa Clara Waste Water in the pipeline — consistent with oil and gas production — that it is unable to treat. The city also believes its 60-year-old pipeline, now exhibiting significant corrosion, is not sufficient to move the sort of waste the Santa Paula facility discharges. They further point to a proposal to handle a chemical at the facility similar in composition to the one that caused the explosion, and the potential for hazardous waste from the facility to enter Oxnard's drinking and agricultural water supply untreated.
We are watching this carefully while the county determines whether the application will be scheduled for a hearing.
Anterra has also been making news. In 2014 the Ventura County District Attorney raided the company’s offices looking for evidence Anterrra had been putting hazardous oilfield waste into its injection wells. It is only permitted for non-hazardous waste, but prosecutors believed the rules were not being followed. CFROG helped reveal some of the practices thanks to a whistleblower who got in touch with us. After the DA filed charges, those criminally involved fled the country, making prosecution difficult. The new operators were fined $500,000 and allowed to operate on a limited basis. Under an agreement, all waste was to be rigorously screened and independently tested.
The company's permit to operate expired in 2018 and they applied for a new one but a Planning Commission Hearing on the full reopening of the site never happened. The Ventura County Board of Supervisors has also rejected a modification to allow oilfield waste disposal in an agricultural zone. CFROG rallied residents to come out and speak against that proposal.
The company next ran afoul of the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR). In May of 2018, Anterra, operating under the new ownership, was cited by DOGGR for injecting waste materials into the ground in one of their wells at a higher pressure than allowed.
They were again cited in November for exceeding the allowed pressure in another well during testing.
On December 17, Anterra sent a letter to its customers explaining that even limited operations had ceased at the facility and they were working with DOGGR on “extensive analysis” at the site, with a possible reopening in 2020.
This troubled history underscores the fact that the burning of fossil fuels is not only causing climate change, the processes involved with extracting it are endangering our air, land and water. We do not have to look far to find evidence of it.
In June of 2011, a sinkhole of super-heated earth opened up and swallowed an oilfield worker in Kern County. That field had been producing heavy oil for decades utilizing a high-pressure production technique of water heated by natural gas and injected into the earth.
In May of this year, a leak which grew to 1.34 million gallons of crude oil and produced water was discovered in the Cymric Oil Field in Bakersfield. Chevron was fined more than $2.7 million by the Division of Oil, Gas & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) for this massive leak, one of the largest in state history. High-pressure steam injection was also used in this field.
Although there are various methods of oil recovery utilizing steam, the most scrutiny is being placed on high-pressure injection that fractures the surrounding formation. A moratorium ordered by Gov. Gavin Newson in November focuses entirely on new steam injection projects using that technique.
In Ventura County, the Board of Supervisors put a moratorium on all new cyclic steam oil drilling in an area near Oxnard where petroleum-related gases were discovered in the Fox Canyon Aquifer. The operator there was also shut down for multiple permit violations. This aquifer supplies water to more than 700,000 residents. Climate First: Replacing Oil and Gas (CFROG) pushed hard for this moratorium.
Scientists working in the Orcutt field near Santa Barbara found evidence of oil-field fluids in water wells near other cyclic steam and acidizing operations, as a result of the new testing required by Senate Bill 4 (2013).
BUT it is important to note, many fields are not affected by our governor's new moratorium because they do not utilize high-pressure steam. In the Oxnard field, steam is injected into the tar sands there, heating the layer until the heavy oil can be extracted. But it is not high pressure.
CALIFORNIA IS GROUND ZERO for steam injection in the United States. It is also used in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada and in a region of Venezuela. Why California? Steam is used to dilute our heavier hydrocarbons so they will flow and, in instances where an oil field is nearly played out, eke the last bit out of the ground. It is often used in shallow formations which tend to be nearer to water sources. The fact is California’s steam-assisted oil industry is extremely energy and water intensive, requiring natural gas to heat water to pull the heavy crude up and even more to turn it into gasoline.
And while hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" gets much of the attention, a permit to frack hasn't been pulled in Ventura County since 2015. This technique utilizes a high-pressure mixture of water and chemicals to break the formations apart.
Steam operations are much more common here.
Anneliese Anderle, a retired petroleum engineer, oversaw well abandonments in Kern County and also worked in the Wilmington Oil Field in Long Beach and Los Angeles, where a massive steam flood in the tar sands there contributed to a decision to shut steam injection down due to "subsidence," or the sinking of the land. She has many concerns.
"The alternating cycles of steam injection, soaking and production put considerable compressive stress on the production casing as it heats, expands and cools," Anderle said. "This also may cause failure to the cement that bonds the exterior casing to the formation. Cement failure can then lead to pathways for the high-pressure steam to migrate to the protected fresh water aquifers and possibly to the surface."
What has California done to protect our land and water in the wake of these serious oilfield issues? Besides the recent narrowly applied moratorium from our governor, we do have new regulations in place which govern underground injections of all types, including steam. DOGGR is now fining oil companies for “surface expressions," the geologic ruptures that caused oil to flow unabated out of the ground in the Cymric Field.
This is not enough.
California has been a leader on climate, yet we have the most carbon-intensive and risky drilling practices in the United States. It is time to phase them out and work toward a fossil-fuel free future.
A long-standing concern for Climate First: Replacing Oil & Gas has been the issue of what to do with land which has been contaminated with the remnants of oil and gas infrastructure. It's a problem we will need to tackle as we transition away from fossil fuels.
The motley history of the now abandoned Petrochem site just north of Ventura has for decades given city and county officials pause when mulling future uses. From its inception in the 1950s as a fertilizer manufacturer, to a later use as a refinery for crude oil which processed 20,000 barrels a day and stored hundreds of thousands more in tanks, the property has been controversial.
An industrial accident at the site in 1978 killed one worker and injured four others. According to a letter written to the Planning Commission in 1983 by a worker, “Spills and mechanical breakdowns were so common that we employees would play games to see who could predict the next one.”
The site was finally shuttered in 1984 after Citizens to Preserve the Ojai stopped plans for an expansion claiming it was an environmental hazard. The Environmental Protection Agency ordered a cleanup which was largely completed in 2014, but questions remain on the thoroughness of the effort.
CFROG is encouraged when we see projects like Cenergy’s proposal for a solar farm on a former Superfund site near Fillmore. The area was once home to a Texaco refinery. We also applaud a proposal just north of the Petrochem site by the Trust for Public Land for a restoration of native riparian habitat.
But the Montecito owner of this property has proposed housing, which was shot down by the Board of Supervisors in 2018, and now an auto and contractor equipment storage yard.
Activists, including CFROG, packed a small conference room on Oct. 14 to protest the latest proposal during its first hearing. Not only is this a site of questionable environmental safety but it has the compounding problem of its location in a floodplain in the delicate ecosystem of the Ventura River.
Moreover, emissions from the new vehicle trips proposed would lead straight into the sensitive Ojai Valley, which has its own strict rules for pollution sources due to the unique geological vulnerability of the area.
Speakers also noted its location just over a mile away from an area listed by CalEnviro Screen as an Environmental Justice Community, already overburdened by pollution. The largest oil field in the county also surrounds the site.
Another wrinkle appeared at the hearing. Although the new proposal was touted by the owner's land-use consulting firm as the potential site for new cars shipped in from the Port of Hueneme to be stored and prepped, it was apparently just a pipe dream. Officials from the port attended the hearing to also protest the new use and relayed that they had surveyed all their auto customers and not one had expressed interest in storing cars at this remote and controversial site.
The many objections raised made it clear there was not enough information to make any kind of a decision on the proposal. Much more environmental review is needed and questions answered. Ventura County Planning Director Dave Ward took in all the oral and written commentary and promised to respond within 30-40 days.
We believe it is time for the ecologically sensitive area north of Ventura to move from polluting uses of the land to those which contribute to sustainable practices and preservation of this valuable natural area.
On Tuesday, the county put the oil and gas industry on notice that environmental oversight matters.
This is a group that is used to having its way with minimal permitting attention from the county, which has authority to inspect everything above the ground. Below the ground, the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) rules.
How is this possible? The vast majority of new wells are covered under very old permits for adjacent operations and don’t require modern environmental review. Some permits go back 50-70 years. Some don’t have them at all.
CFROG has long pushed for these “antiquated Conditional Use Permits” to be scuttled in favor of a process that would ask each applicant to submit to the same review drilling operations without these legacy permits undergo. We are heartened that the county’s legal team now agrees with us.
Under a staff recommendation, the board voted 4-1, with Supervisor Kelly Long dissenting, to direct county counsel to bring back an ordinance which would provide more oversight. And in a second motion, they asked that a way be found to prevent a run on these types of permits until the ordinance can be finalized.
The oil industry understands that its days are waning as the march toward renewables proceeds. And in the interim, we believe asking for equal environmental review for all new projects is smart.
The inspiration to move our economy away from fossil fuels has come from the bold action Californians have taken. We have developed policies that are being emulated around the world. The Chinese asked us for advice before starting their own cap and trade program. Automakers have joined with us in taking a stand for fuel economy against the backward ways of the Trump administration.
We are the cutting edge. We are leading the pack for the U.S. And we will be proud to tell our grandchildren some day that yes, we saw the planet struggling and we took a stand.
Oxnard has long borne more than its share of industrial pollution. While most coastal cities have traditionally kept their coast pristine for residents and tourists, this city’s beaches are marred by power plants and the toxic remnants of the old Halaco plant, now a Superfund site.
So it is no wonder that this community has risen up twice in the last few months to successfully demand an end to oilfield expansion. It is also not surprising that last year residents stopped a new power plant from being built on the beach — and won. Recently the Port of Hueneme agreed to do a full Environmental Impact Report on a planned expansion, in part due to resident requests.
Local governments are now more aware of environmental justice issues. According to Communities for a Better Environment, low-income communities of color are at higher risk for asthma, cardiovascular and respiratory disease, cancer, and birth defects. And those same communities tend to be stressed by poverty, unemployment, and inadequate access to health care or healthful food choices.
Senate Bill 1000, passed in 2016, mandated that cities and counties lessen the impact of pollution on these neighborhoods.
It is in this context, and with strong grassroots help, that CFROG and its partner organization Food & Water Watch worked to place a moratorium on new cyclic steam oil drilling in the tar sands of the Oxnard Plain on April 23 and helped to stop the expansion of another oilfield nearby on July 23. These actions taken by the Ventura County Board of Supervisors were an unprecedented and welcome move to protect the people of Oxnard.
Low-income communities surround Oxnard's oil fields. In the July 23 action, Supervisors voted 4-1, with Supervisor Kelly Long dissenting, to have staff draft a resolution to deny the expansion of the Cabrillo Oil Field. Some residents of the Oxnard Pacific Mobile Estates are within 1,660 feet of drilling, and are surrounded by pesticide use in the neighboring fields AND breathe the diesel exhaust from the busy truck route on Highway 1.
When we contacted these residents to let them know of the impending new oil wells in their back yard, they told us that nobody listens to them.
We are happy to report that this time somebody did.