California faces its worst drought in 1,200 years and the oil industry may be contaminating the state's precious aquifers, which consumers are increasingly relying upon as rivers, streams, and reservoirs reach record lows.
Oil companies have been pumping wastewater into groundwater sources designed for human consumption, a dangerous practice that the state must immediately halt, environmental groups argue in a new lawsuit.
"We're suing the state because it's letting oil companies dump toxic waste fluid into protected underground water sources," Patrick Sullivan, climate media director for the Center for Biological Diversity, a party to the suit, told VICE News. "If we don't protect these water sources, we're going to regret it."
The oil companies are pumping some of the estimated 130 billion gallons of fluid waste they produce annually in California into aquifers that are protected under the federal Safe Water Drinking Act, Sullivan said. The oil refining process produces about 10 times as much water as oil, leaving companies with a constant struggle over where to inject their waste fluids.
The fluid, a byproduct of fracking and other oil extraction methods, often has high levels of the cancer-causing chemical benzene, research has found.
"We don't know what the health impacts are now but we do know this water has oil in it," Sullivan said, explaining that there was inadequate research at this point on the effects of the liquid.
The lawsuit, filed by Sullivan's group, the Sierra Club, and Earthjustice, calls on California's oil and gas regulator, the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), to immediately revoke permits for drilling oil fluids into wells that release into aquifers.
The state admitted last month that the oil industry has about 2,500 wells that channel into aquifers, the Sierra Club's lawyer Nathan Matthews told VICE News. Oil waste is injected into about 500 of those wells, while steam is injected into another 1,500 in order to facilitate the extraction of oil. The groups are suing to cease all injections, but the wastewater ones are the most concerning, Matthews said.
The state has already called on oil companies to cease the practice by some time in 2017, since DOGGR found the fluid was indeed contaminating aquifers — but Sullivan and Matthews insisted the delay put too much water in jeopardy.
"DOGGR proposed an emergency removal order last month allowing them to continue injecting for up to two years," Matthews told VICE News. The state is currently surveying the wells, trying to determine if certain wells fall into an "aquifer exemption" because the aquifers are already too dirty for human use.
But Matthews called the plan of action "backwards."
"You have to protect water," he said.
Advocates say the injections have already begun to impact local agriculture, and the family-owned Palla Farms, located in Bakersfield, is currently suing oil producers for allegedly contaminating their groundwater source by releasing their waste. Palla has claimed its almond orchards have declined since the producers began drilling their fluids in the vicinity.
Paula Getzelman told VICE News the drought has already caused major challenges for her vineyard in Monterrey, and that her drip irrigation system could be damaged if oil waste reached her groundwater source.
"Our concern is that our water comes from deep water aquifers ... and vines pick up whatever is in the water," Getzelman said.
DOGGR's oil and gas supervisor Steven Bohlen would not comment on the litigation, but he issued a statement maintaining that the "protection of California's groundwater resources — as well as public health — is paramount, particularly in this time of extreme drought."
"The state and the US Environmental Protection Agency are moving aggressively and quickly to test all wells that risk harming sources of water for drinking and agriculture," Bohlen said. He added that 23 wells had been shut down when a proven risk was determined, but there has been no proven contamination of water used for drinking or agricultural practices as a result of underground injection by the oil and gas industry.
The president of the Western States Petroleum Association, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, also issued a statement defending the state. She said that the state and the EPA are working to test and to regulate the wells.
"This lawsuit is an attempt to thwart the regulatory process," she said.
Follow Meredith Hoffman on Twitter: @MerHoffman