What comes up must go back down: The dirty story of oilfield and hazardous waste disposal in Ventura County



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.