Jun. 13—A large oilfield wastewater disposal pond near Buttonwillow will likely close this summer, and its operator and last remaining customer will together pay $645,000 in penalties and fees, under a recent court settlement that further restricts a decades-old practice that has become a focus of regional water quality regulators.
The accord concludes a 2019 lawsuit that accused facility owner Valley Water Management Co. and Colorado-based oil producer Sentinel Peak Resources of dumping fluid containing harmful chemicals above a reservoir that provides local drinking and irrigation water.
The case is the second in which provisions of Proposition 65, the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, were used to shut down a Kern County percolation and evaporation pond operation accepting oilfield produced water, which is a highly saline byproduct of local oil production that contains small concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals.
Valley Water and Sentinel Peak did not respond to requests for comment. But the settlement agreement notes that the defendants denied discharging chemicals listed in Prop. 65 into any source of drinking water or water suitable for domestic or municipal uses.
It was unclear how the mid-size oil producer plans to dispose of its produced water upon the closure of the facility called McKittrick 1 and 1-3, located southeast of Lokern Road and Highway 33. Other local oil companies, including some believed to have used the same facility in years past, generally inject theirs deep underground in or near the reservoirs where the fluid originated.
Representatives of plaintiffs Clean Water Fund and the Association of Irritated Residents expressed hopes the settlement will lead to an end of a practice that has been largely phased out nationwide in favor of other alternatives.
"Kern County oil companies claim they are under the strictest environmental regulations in the world. But what good are regulations that require lawsuits from citizens to be enforced?" asked AIR representative Tom Frantz, a Shafter almond grower.
"And where are the state regulators? Nothing happened at this site until we took staff and members of the state and region water quality control board out there to see for themselves what was happening," Frantz continued. He said Valley Water operates a series of similar disposal ponds a mile to the west on other side of Highway 33. "I would like to see those closed up as well."
The court settlement states the defendants discharged an average of about 2.5 million gallons of producer water per day on top of what Valley Water acknowledged was a regional aquifer. The wastewater allegedly contained arsenic, benzene, ethylbenzene, naphthalene, radionuclides and toluene.
The facility has operated since 1969 but wasn't equipped with its current configuration of storage, pipelines and treatment ponds until 1980.
Clean Water Fund and AIR alleged the practice has created an underground plume that has spread more than two miles since monitoring wells were established in the area in 2004, and that the contamination may eventually reach Buttonwillow's drinking water supply.
In early 2019, regional water regulators ordered Valley Water to shut down a separate percolation and evaporation facility that, with little notice for more than 50 years, additionally used sprinklers to dispose of produced water 24 hours per day on hillsides south of Breckenridge Road east of Bakersfield.
Despite small oil producers' pleas a closure would force them out of business, the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board forced the closure out of concern an underground plume will one day reach the Kern River, and ultimately, Bakersfield's drinking water.
The water board was not a party to the recent court settlement. Assistant Executive Officer Clay Rodgers said that although the agreement allows the defendants to ask for an extra year before closing the operation, they have not done so and he thinks the facility will shut down by Sept. 1.
Rodgers added the board continues to work through the time-intensive process of reviewing other Central Valley evaporation and percolation ponds and that he anticipates related regulatory actions in the future. He emphasized the agency is not necessarily opposed to such disposal methods but that they need to be properly sited to avoid contaminating sources of usable water.
The court settlement includes civil penalties of $139,000 and an "additional settlement payment" of $25,000. It states the total payment is meaningful and that other pond operators should take notice.
"As other similarly situated operators within the regulated community become aware of this action," it states, "there is reason to believe this action will help motivate entities to achieve compliance as opposed to face similar civil enforcement efforts."