Oil & Water Do Mix

And this is probably the last thing you wanted to hear today, but… oilfield wastewater from oil production is used to irrigate crops in one of California’s highest producing agricultural counties. Ten percent of Kern County farms get a discounted price on used water from Chevron oil fields. Water that has tested positive for toxic chemicals like acetone and methylene chloride.

It’s not just a little bit of water either. It takes about 10 barrels of water to pull 1 barrel of crude oil out of these old wells in Kern County. While farmers in the drought stricken region are thanking their lucky stars for crops that they can bring to harvest, the rest of us are having an OMG moment. Oil field wastewater used for agriculture and wildlife management in the East is forbidden, and illegal, but not in the arid states of the West.

They don’t even know what all is in that water, but Chevron insists it is pure enough for this use. They test it themselves, and it meets their standards. Interesting, such a stance by a self-regulated industry performance report. They produce 21 million of gallons of wastewater a day. It has to go somewhere, and it does – through walnut shell filtration said to absorb the remaining oil, but it cannot remove the elements that have dissolved into the water itself. From there the water is pumped into holding ponds before being sent to an 8 mile long canal before being sold to 90 farms in the area who irrigate 45,000 acres with the stuff.

Recent testing conducted by Water Defense found concentrations of both acetone and methylene chloride heavy enough that their presence in the groundwater near a gas station would have officials shutting them down and levying huge fines against them for toxic pollution. But, it’s perfectly okay to water fruits, nuts, vegetables, and cows with – in California. A lot of almonds and grapes come from Kern County, along with many common produce aisle purchases. In 2013, it was the #3 agricultural producer in the state.

[alert type=white ]Blake Sanden, an agriculture extension agent and irrigation water expert with UC Davis, said “everyone smells the petrochemicals in the irrigation water” in the Cawelo district. But he said local farmers trust that organisms in the soil remove toxins or impurities in water. “When I talk to growers, and they smell the oil field crap in that water, they assume the soil is taking care of this,” Sanden said. — Los Angeles Times[/alert]

Yes. The soil is taking it in, and it’s highly probable that so are the plants. Further testing is obviously needed to determine just what is in that water, and ultimately what is in the food being grown or raised with it. Ever heard of remediation plantings? Some plants have shown excellent capacities for absorbing and holding onto different industrial pollutants. By planting a cover crop or foresting brownfield properties, they are finding that toxic soil can be cleaned to the point that it is once again inhabitable. So, yes, the food this water is used on can very well contain whatever is in it, and methylene chloride is a carcinogen.

Don’t get the idea that this practice of watering your food with oilfield wastewater is a emergency measure that keeps farms and people working during this extreme drought. The situation was publicized in 2010 when a certain large, well-connected farmer experienced huge losses from unfiltered ponds leaching into his wells and killing crops and almond trees. Probably not all of them, but the portion of his 6,000 acres that bordered the oilfield retention pond. The lawsuit brought him $2 million as a damage settlement. Should have been more, considering his brother sits on the water board? Fred Starrh definitely thought it wasn’t enough for everything that would have to be done to return his soil to a productive state.

[alert type=white ]”If you want to understand some of the history of this, read this 2010 article in High Country News: “Oil and Water Don’t Mix With CA Agriculture.” What the author does not tell you is that the “farmer” Fred Starrh owns his property with his brother who is on the Board of Directors of the Water District that sells the water to Aera Energy. It has been going on for a long time and, no matter how things work out, the Starrh family will make out just fine. I would expect that he is really angling for some sort of Federal Subsidy. The Water Districts knew; the farmers like Starrh knew; the CA State Regulators knew. But Big Oil and Big Ag own the legislators and their lawyers own the regulators. A few of us have been telling this story ever since we chased Richard Pombo out of office but it took a multiyear drought to get people to listen.” — Comment on Think Progress[/alert]

Considering that California supplies 50% of the fresh produce in the US, it’s doubtful that we’ve all escaped consuming tainted food. It’s not all shipped fresh. A lot of it goes into wine, juice, jellies, canned goods, the freezer section, and anything else edible you can buy at the store. No one tests food for these kinds of elements. No one tests crops for it either. But they’re about to start, or so the L.A. Times reports. Still, Chevron has friends in high places, as does any other mega corporation in today’s world.

In the mean time, you might want to dive into growing your own food. As much of it as possible, because there’s bound to be more revelations like this that will make you hair stand on end again soon.

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Tammy Clayton

Contributing Writer at Garden Culture Magazine

Tammy has been immersed in the world of plants and growing since her first job as an assistant weeder at the tender age of 8. Heavily influenced by a former life as a landscape designer and nursery owner, she swears good looking plants follow her home.