Federal Lawsuit: Gov. Brown Conspired to Contaminate Aquifers

BAKERSFIELD, CA-  November of last year NBC Bay Area reported that state officials allowed oil and gas companies to pump nearly three billion gallons of waste water into underground aquifers that could have been used for drinking water or irrigation.

You read that correctly.  Non-exempt, “high quality” clean water aquifers that are supposed to be protected by the EPA were polluted with 3 billion gallons of toxic waste.

“It’s inexcusable,” said Hollin Kretzmann, at the Center for Biological Diversity in San Francisco. “At (a) time when California is experiencing one of the worst droughts in history, we’re allowing oil companies to contaminate what could otherwise be very useful ground water resources for irrigation and for drinking. It’s possible these aquifers are now contaminated irreparably.”

California’s Department of Conservation’s Chief Deputy Director, Jason Marshall, told NBC Bay Area, “In multiple different places of the permitting process an error could have been made.”

“There have been past issues where permits were issued to operators that they shouldn’t be injecting into those zones and so we’re fixing that,” Marshall added.

In “fracking” or hydraulic fracturing operations, oil and gas companies use massive amounts of water to force the release of underground fossil fuels. The practice produces large amounts of waste water that must then be disposed of.

Marshall said that often times, oil and gas companies simply re-inject that waste water back deep underground where the oil extraction took place. But other times, Marshall said, the waste water is re-injected into aquifers closer to the surface. Those injections are supposed to go into aquifers that the EPA calls “exempt”—in other words, not clean enough for humans to drink or use.

In a letter from the State to the EPA, officials admitted that in at least nine of the injection wells, the waste water was injected into non-exempt aquifers.  The EPA says a non-exempt aquifer contains high quality water suitable for humans to drink, watering animals or irrigating crops.

If the waste water re-injection well “went into a non-exempt aquifer. It should not have been permitted,” said Marshall.

Now, fast-forward 7 months; a landmark RICO complaint (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations), reserved for organized criminals, has been filed in federal court alleging Governor Jerry Brown, oil companies, state agencies, and Kern County’s Planning director conspired to inject the waste water into non-exempt aquifers to boost fuel production and tax revenue.

According to the complaint, Gov. Jerry Brown’s office ordered the California Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) to approve permits to inject contaminated water into the aquifers, in violation of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The fundamental goal of the enterprise and conspiracy was to preserve and expand the ability to inject underground chemicals and toxic waste, thereby expanding their oil production and maximizing profits, including tax revenues and funding from federal sources, regardless of the impact on fresh water,” -Lancaster law firm of R. Rex Parris

The suit claims that Brown, in 2011, fired California’s top oil regulator, Elena Miller, under pressure from the industry and several Kern County state and federal law makers.

Miller insisted the law required detailed engineering and geological studies for each proposed injection well before the DOGGR could issue a permit.

Oil companies complained that she bogged down the process of applying for injection permits.

Brown replaced Miller with Tim Kustic, who promised a “flexible” approach to injection permitting.

Kustic stopped requiring the studies and injection permit approvals soared from 50 permits a year to 1,575 in 2012.

Last year the DOGGR admitted it wrongly approved injections at 2,500 wells, mostly in Kern County, over a period of decades.  Twenty-three of the wells have been shutdown while the remaining wells injecting waste water into non-exempt aquifers are under a two year review and may continue pumping until 2017.

The DOGGR maintains, despite it’s illegal permitting, that no aquifers have been contaminated.

However, Patricia Oliver, a lawyer with the Lancaster firm that filed the suit, said the plaintiffs, The Committee to Protect Agricultural Water, has evidence local aquifers were contaminated by oil field injections.

She claims, starting in 2012, groundwater tests have shown salt levels at local aquifers rise to levels that “have exceeded the maximum contaminant levels authorized by the EPA.”

The lawsuit argues that one Central Valley farmer lost an entire orchard of cherry trees due to water contamination from a nearby injection well.