About 10 percent of the farmland in Kern County, California is being watered with recycled wastewater from Chevron’s Kern River oil field, according to a recent report from the Los Angeles Times.
Chevron recycles and sells 21 million gallons of oil production wastewater to farmers per day, and tests conducted by Water Defense, an environmental group founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, show that this water is far from pristine.
Researchers for Water Defense took samples from 10 points of varying depth along the Cawelo canal, which channels Chevron’s Kern River wastewater after it is purportedly stripped of its residual oil, and discovered high levels of toxic contaminants – as well as oil remnants. In one sample, Water Defense measured a concentration of methylene chloride that was four times the amount of the chemical discovered that the site of a 2013 ExxonMobil tar sands spill.
“All these chemicals of concern are flowing in the irrigation canal,” Scott Smith, chief scientist for Water Defense, told ThinkProgress. “If you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined.”
Chevron has been selling its wastewater to Kern County farmers for the last two decades, but the government has never required it to be tested for chemicals that are used in oil production. According to the LA Times, government standards are woefully outdated and only require testing for naturally occurring toxins like salts and arsenic. There is no required testing for toxins like methylene chloride, an industrial solvent used to soften crude oil.
State Senator Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) is sponsoring legislation that would finally require oil production wastewater to be tested for oil production contaminants. Pavley told the LA Times that such contaminants being found in irrigation water is “obviously unacceptable.”
Blake Sanden, an agriculture extension agent and irrigation water expert with UC Davis, has said that farmers can actually “smell the oil field crap in that water,” but assume that any risk is mitigated by the soil. Sanden added that soil does aid in some beneficial filtration but that it’s unknown how much oil production waste is entering the crops through their roots.