Oil Waste­water Is Be­ing Used to Ir­ri­gate Cal­i­for­nia’s Crops

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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.

Photo by Daniel Jones,

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