Eleven oil wells in Santa Barbara County are among hundreds failing to comply with federal safe drinking water laws because of an administrative mess within the state’s Division of Oil, Gas, & Geothermal Resources (DOGGR).
Injection wells pump 13 or more gallons of wastewater — toxic and sometimes radioactive — back into the ground for every gallon of oil they pump out. Wells drilling in aquifers containing water for drinking or irrigation are required to file a lengthy exemption form with DOGGR, but a widespread administrative mishap botched the oversight process, state officials confirmed this week. Two of the 11 wells in Santa Barbara may turn out to be exempt after further review.
The county disposal wells in question are located in Lompoc, Casmalia, and Cat Canyon Oil fields. As far as he knew, said Kevin Drude, the county’s Energy Division director, injection wells in the county aren’t drilling into a potable water supply, but he is going to meet with DOGGR representatives next week to discuss this further. “I want to find out what exactly we need to be aware of here, if anything,” Drude said, adding that DOGGR has been sharing information with his office for some time.
Steve Bohlen, who was appointed to head DOGGR last summer, said the state water board continues to work with DOGGR to identify injection wells pumping into aquifers that might not be exempt. “The Water Board’s specific task is to identify nearby water wells and evaluate their vulnerability,” he said. “It is looking at regions of the state with injection wells that pose a high risk to usable ground water resources, including Santa Barbara County.”
As California continues several years into a drought, environmentalists are crying foul, calling on the state to act quickly. In 2011, an audit found that DOGGR was too lenient in the water it considered clean enough to protect, among other deficiencies.
The extent to which these injection wells are contaminating the water supply statewide remains to be seen, and state regulators have recently scurried to comply with federal stipulations from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which required that the state regulators draft a plan to remedy the problem.
Last week, DOGGR sent a letter to the EPA promising to adhere to a plan to bring the regulations back into compliance with federal law. They have until 2017 to fix the permit system, otherwise the disposal wells will be shut down. Last summer, 11 wells in Kern County were shut down after it came to light that they were within a short distance of about 100 water wells.
California has more than 50,000 injection wells. Of the 2,500 wells that were recently permitted, 532 are water disposal wells. Based on preliminary testing of nine wells, state officials said there is no indication that drinking water was contaminated.
Hollin Kretzmann, spokesperson for the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit leading the charge on this issue, said, “This is an ongoing crisis … . The state has been unable to keep track of what water needs to be protected, what the exemptions are, where they apply,” he said. “They are scrambling to put these together, but that’s inexcusable.”