Toxic Air & Water Contaminants Surrounding Oil Operations in Kern County

November 24, 2014

*This publication was first released on November 19, 2014*

Bakersfield, CA –

Anyone who watched local news in the last several days can tell you that Kern County was punished with flagrant air quality a few weeks ago. Almost all news sources ran multiple stories about the “alarming” data.  The coverage was a frenzy-like scramble for getting headlines out of a very well-known and antiquated subject.  Media feeds on itself, the way any positive feedback loop does, and endlessly makes important subjects sound like the screeching noise that comes out of speakers when the microphone feed loops.

The result from this type of coverage is that it numbs the ears of any consumer.  A consumer can first feel alarmed by the data, but pretty soon the constant coverage of the issue serves to dilute the information. In the case of this poor air quality wave, another point of dilution is that no regulatory agency took steps to actively affect the lives of residents.  Last week, I saw a headline: Should football games be cancelled due to poor air quality? If we strip all of the propaganda involved with the issue, the answer to that question is plainly, yes!

However, when the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District, the agency in charge of regulating and studying air quality in the valley, does not actively suggest and/or require that games be stopped we lose the opportunity to actually make a statement about the level of contaminants in the air.  This kind of statement would do much more to spark in-depth conversations about air quality than constant coverage. At that point, we can use that statement to have actual conversations about what is polluting our air and how to fix it.

The reason that I begin this piece, discussing the power and impotence of the media is that I feel that we are all doing a dis-service to ourselves by letting media businesses prescribe our level of concern for terribly congruent issues. Often, the washed-down 1 minute and 30 second shorts, that the channels feed us during the 6pm news is not enough to actively encourage independent learning or blatantly disregard important information that is necessary to have a fulfilling conversations.  I want to discuss some important pieces of information that have been blatantly disregarded but have much to do with our air quality and our environmental health attainment.

In October, several organizations across the country released a report and accompanying scientific, peer reviewed, research study that serves to identify conditions of air toxics surrounding natural gas and oil exploration wells.  The report aptly titled Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution Identified at Oil and Gas Development Sites discusses community based samples collected across the country.  The findings of the report are indicative of local air quality being traumatically affected by oil & gas explorations.

The citizens find after reviewing laboratory results that the “samples identified eight compounds in the air at the various sites at levels greater than the levels identified by ATSDR[1] or IRIS[2]. Fifteen of 35 bucket samples and 14 of 41 formaldehyde badges captured concentrations of pollutants in excess of the ATSDR or IRIS levels.” The toxic gases found over health safety levels range from Benzene, a known carcinogen to Hydrogen Sulfide and Formaldehyde which are irritants.

This community led data-gathering effort across 5 states, involved residents of downwind communities and other affected communities in an exemplary testament of resident’s power to conduct citizen based science. In Kern County, air samples taken also by community members earlier this year are consistent with the findings of the report and detail that toxic air contaminants are actively being released into our air basin through largely unregulated oil and gas explorations. It is also true to say that Kern County air quality problems are more complex than a single source’s emissions, but the fact that these are localized toxic air contaminants can inform our perception of the amount of active oil and gas wells within our county.  Last week as we talked about the air quality at every chance, we should have been talking about this report and gearing up for progressive ways to inspire less emissions from all sources.

Similarly, in October, the Regional Water Quality Control Board released a series of documents that prove beyond doubt that that wastewater injection wells have been discharging oil industry waste into aquifers that are legally protected under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. The documents show that at least 9 “non-exempt” injection wells have been operationally discharging wastewater and over 140 “water supply wells” were identified within 1 mile of those injection sources.  Further testing by the Regional Water Board of 8 water supply wells showed that half of the samples exceeded the allowable limits for Thalium, Arsenic, and Nitrate.

Similarly to air quality, water resources have garnered constant coverage in the news this year, so it seems very surprising that these findings by the Regional Water Board have not been given the same level of coverage. In this time of extreme drought anything that can have negative implications to our drinking water supply should have extensive media coverage.  Even more important, any sort of operations that can adversely impact drinking water wells must be extensively reviewed and scrutinized for public health protective adequacy.

The number of oil and gas exploration wells have increased tremendously in this country over the last decade.  Even worse, the methods for extracting crude and natural gas have become more extreme as oil magnates scramble for any possible way to extract every last bit of oil out of the ground. Some of these techniques like horizontal drilling, high pressurized injection wells, the use of acid, and the use of “treated” water pose serious concerns that our health protective agencies have not had time to proactively study and identify.  What is worse, is that although Kern County is in California the forefront for oil exploration, this county receives misery gains compared to the gains of large petroleum companies.  We do however, receive the forefront of illness stimulating waste products.  Through the cases described above, we have learned how citizen based science and state agencies can be utilized to discover data, but I think what will be more indicative to the resilience of this county will be what we as citizens choose to do with that data.

[1] Federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) – Chronic Risk Level.

[2] EPA’s Integrated Risk Information System (IRIS)—for Cancer.