Eleven oil wells in Lompoc, Casmalia, and Cat Canyon 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). Oil wells drilling in drinking- or irrigation-water aquifers must file a lengthy exemption form with DOGGR, but an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) audit of the department in 2011 found deficiencies in the state agency’s monitoring program. According to Kevin Drude, the county’s Energy Division director, no injection wells — which replace the oil removed underground with residual water from drilling operations — in the county drill into potable water supplies, though he said he’s meeting with DOGGR representatives this week.
Steve Bohlen, appointed head of DOGGR last summer, said the state water board is working 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 groundwater resources, including Santa Barbara County.”
With California’s four-year drought, environmentalists are crying foul, calling on the state to act quickly. The EPA audit had found DOGGR too lenient in the water it considered clean enough to protect, among other problems. 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 EPA stipulations requiring state regulators to draft a plan to remedy the problem.
DOGGR has written to the EPA, promising to bring the regulations back into compliance. The state agency has until 2017 to either fix the permit system or shut down the disposal wells. Last summer, 11 wells in Kern County were closed when it came to light that they were too close to about 100 water wells. California has more than 50,000 injection wells. Of the 2,500 wells recently permitted, 532 are water-disposal wells. Preliminary testing of nine wells give an indication that no drinking water was contaminated, said state officials.