Water Board Considers Order Against Company Operating Oil Field Water Site

KERN COUNTY, CA – The Central Valley Water Board is considering a cease-and-desist order against a Kern County company that operates dozens of unlined pits holding oil field waste water.

The board says it has evidence that a plume of oil waste from one or more of the 27 pits has contaminated groundwater. The 94-acre Edison oil field waste site is operated by Valley Water Management Co., which handles waste water for a number of oil firms in the region.

If adopted, the order would not close the pits. Operations could continue while authorities determine the extent of groundwater contamination.

But officials are calling for an immediate halt to what they said was the company’s unorthodox and illegal method of dealing with excess oil field water: spraying it on local hillsides with high-powered sprinklers.

The board says high levels of salt and boron may have accumulated in the spray field, which potentially could make their way into nearby Cottonwood Creek and the Kern River.

The orders are opposed by a number of oil companies that say closing the pit site would put them out of business. Because oil operations in California bring up much more water than oil, energy companies struggle to dispose of the unwanted liquid — which may contain drilling fluids as well as naturally occurring salts and compounds found in the ground, such as arsenic.

The cheapest method is to put the waste water into long, narrow pits gouged in the ground, where it evaporates into the air or seeps back into the soil.

Kern County officials earlier this year discovered more than 300 previously unidentified waste sites. The water board’s review found that more than one-third of the region’s active disposal pits were operating without permission.

A decision to close the pits would signal a more aggressive stance from regulators, who are under pressure to resolve the waste water problem. Scientists and some state legislators have called for the outright ban of unlined oil waste pits in California.