Oil Wastewater Is Being Used to Irrigate California’s Crops
Want some petroleum chemicals and other toxic waste with your California vegetables? You already are.
That is the bottom line in a new study recently conducted by Environmental Working Group (EWG).
The numbers are frightening no matter how one looks at them. Based on EWG’S analysis, approximately 100,000 acres of food crops in California’s Central Valley were irrigated with oil field wastewater during the past three years.
The oil companies produced the wastewater in the normal course of doing business. According to public reports, those companies say they used more than 2 million gallons of chemicals for their work. Of those, at least 16 of them in common use are chemicals California classifies as carcinogens or reproductive toxicants, as identified by Proposition 65 law in the state. The wastewater from those chemicals is recycled and then sold to irrigation districts, mostly in Kern County.
The concern in having such wastewater in among California big food production areas is obvious. As Bill Allayaud, EWG’S Caifornia director of governmental affairs said, “The overlap of fracking chemicals and the chemicals used in conventional drilling is troubling.”
EWG escalated these results, which are now in the hands of an expert panel brought together by the state to see if the practice of using such waters for irrigation is safe for the final crops – and the humans who eat them. The expert panel began its analysis by ordering the oil companies to disclose what chemicals were used in their processes. That has not gone as well as expected. While the companies did release records for 198 commercial additives, they also noted that as many as 40 percent of the additives involved were not being named because they were considered ‘trade secrets’. That information may eventually come out, but not without further court action unfortunately.
A surprise in what was disclosed by the oil companies is that 40 percent of the chemicals named by the chemical companies as used in their processes have also been used in fracking in California. Considering that the water board in parallel has claimed that no water from fracked oil wells is used in crop irrigation, the presence of those common chemicals in the list is disturbing.
While the study is going on, the state water board will not stop the practice. EWG itself supports that, as Tasha Stoiber, an EWG Senior Scientist and report author, said, “No one should stop eating produce from California. But there are too many unanswered questions about whether crops could take up the chemicals in the wastewater and whether that could harm people’s health.”
There have only been three studies so far of the wastewater. Those were done by outside consultants, but paid for either by the oil companies themselves or the irrigation districts buying the wastewater. The analysis to date was debatable for yet another reason, with one of the studies making its conclusions solely on the basis of five water samples gathered in a single day.
Until truly independent scientific studies of the wastewater are conducted, and until the full list of all chemicals involved is disclosed, it will be impossible to verify the true safety of the irrigation water being used in Central California. At least now, however, awareness is up and some answers may finally be brought to light to help keep the crops safe for everyone.