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LOS ANGELES— California oil regulators today released a report that found “systemic problems” in the state’s regulation of oil industry underground injection in the Los Angeles area. The report admits that oil companies have been allowed to drill wells and begin injecting fluid underground before any assessment of contamination risks to underground water supplies in and around America’s second-largest city.

An abandoned oil well tank. (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

An abandoned oil well tank. (Image: WikiMedia Commons)

“State officials admit they have been endangering water supplies by letting the oil industry virtually drill at will in the Los Angeles area,” said Hollin Kretzmann with the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Brown administration plans to take years to evaluate the water-pollution risks while letting the oil industry continue dumping huge quantities of toxic fluid into the ground.”

The report from the state’s Department of Conservation explains that, in 2012, the state decided to ignore requirements to assess before the start of a project whether oil waste fluid could threaten underground water. That decision was made not long after Gov. Jerry Brown fired two top oil regulators for moving too slowly to approve injection well permits.

Today’s review also found that many older injection wells in Los Angeles have not been reviewed for water contamination risk in decades. There is no review on file at all for at least 19 oil industry injection projects in the L.A. area. But the state plans to take at least three years to assess the problem, even as these wells continue to operate.

The state’s assessment of underground injection risks to L.A.’s water was completed as early as a year ago, but it’s been under administration review and held from the public since that time.

“The Brown administration kept these disturbing findings from the public and is still dragging its feet on taking corrective action to protect our water supplies,” Kretzmann said. “That failure to act in the Los Angeles area raises huge questions about injection well risks to water supplies in other parts of the state.”

The oil industry operates about 55,000 injection wells in California. Some are used to dispose of toxic wastewater, which commonly contains benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals. Other injection wells shoot vast quantities of water or steam into the earth to release oil deposits. Both types of injection wells can contaminate underground water supplies.

Under pressure from federal regulators, state officials admitted earlier this year that they allowed oil companies to drill thousands of wells into protected aquifers across California. The state’s top oil regulator resigned in the wake of those revelations. But the state has shut down just 23 of these illegal wells, while thousands of others continue to operate in protected aquifers.

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