California is in the midst of its worst drought on record. Last January, Governor Edmund G. Brown, Jr. declared a drought State of Emergency and preparations for water shortages began. Now, a majority of the state falls within the D3 (“extreme”) and D4 (“exceptional”) categories for drought intensity. Most state reservoirs are just 59 percent of their normal capacity, which has increased the demand on groundwater. According to the California Department of Water Resources, groundwater consumption has increased from 40 percent to 60 percent per year. As groundwater plays a more important role in meeting the public’s water needs, issues of groundwater contamination are pushing to the forefront of public attention.
In July 2014, the Californian Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources shut down 11 oil field injection wells in Kern County after suspicions that these wells were leaking fracking wastewater and contaminating groundwater. After the shutdown, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered a detailed report of the supposed contaminated wells within 60 days. Earlier this month, the California State Water Resource Board confirmed that nine of the 11 wells in question were contaminating aquifers. The aquifers being polluted by fracking operations are protected under state and federal laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a technique in oil and gas mining that injects a highly-pressurized mixture of water, sand and chemical additives deep into the earth, breaking up rock formations to allow for entrapped oil to be extracted. Even a conservative EPA estimate places the water consumption of a single fracking well at 2.3 to 3.8 billion gallons. The wastewater from fracking contains benzene, toluene and a medley of other deadly chemicals. Unusable and dangerous, the wastewater is injected deep in the earth’s crust to undergo lengthy natural mitigation.
At a time when Californians need water most, the Center for Biological Diversity estimates that over three billion gallons of fracking wastewater have been illegally dumped into Central Californian aquifers. Testing by the Central Valley Regional Water Board reveals high levels of arsenic and thallium in areas around the nine leaking wastewater injection wells. Arsenic is known to weaken the immune system, even in very low doses, and can cause cancer. Thallium is highly toxic and used in rat poison.
“Clean water is one of California’s most crucial resources, and these documents make it clear that state regulators have utterly failed to protect our water from oil industry pollution,” says Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “Much more testing is needed to gauge the full extent of water pollution and the threat to public health. But Governor Brown should move quickly to halt fracking to ward off a surge in oil industry wastewater that California simply isn’t prepared to dispose of safely.”