By John Cox, Bakersfield Californian

A controversial oilfield wastewater disposal operation east of Bakersfield has been shut down amid a years-long regulatory crackdown and opposition by environmental activist organizations.

The Jan. 3 closure of Valley Water Management Co.’s Fee 34 and Race Track Hill facilities, which sprayed wastewater on the hillsides south of Breckenridge Road for more than half a century with little notice, puts an end to a practice regional water quality regulators say threatened to foul Bakersfield’s water supply through a slow process of underground migration.

At least some of the oil producers that had used sprinklers, evaporation or percolation to dispose of oilfield wastewater at the operation now divert their streams and inject them deep underground.

The cleanup

Attention turns now to what to do with the Race Track Hill facility, a more than 300-acre sprinkler and open-pit evaporation and percolation operation that in recent years took in up to 189,000 gallons per day of oilfield “produced water,” the naturally occurring fluid that comes up from the ground with oil. Produced water from the nearby Edison Oil Field contains small concentrations of toxic chemicals, but it’s a concern to regulators primarily because of its high salt content.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board, the agency that ordered the facility’s closure, is working with Valley Water to design a system for capping parts of the facility, contouring the landscape and diverting rainfall so that incoming fluid does not speed the migration of a large underground plume of salty contamination. Details are expected to be hammered out by July 1.

It’s unclear who deserves more credit for the closure, the regional water quality board or environmental groups that won a court order for the shutdown after their lawsuit resulted in a confidential settlement with Valley Water. Both saw their intentions delayed by a one-year extension of the initial January 2018 deadline for the operation’s closure.

“This insane practice of spraying oily wastewater on a hillside above the Kern River is finally over,” local activist Tom Frantz, head of the Association of Irritated Residents, said in a news release last week. AIR was joined in its lawsuit by watchdog groups Clean Water Fund and the Center for Environmental Health.

Valley Water had argued it was not responsible for the plume of pollution beneath the disposal operation, saying the problem was caused decades before by now-defunct oil producers. It also asserted the plume did not present a threat, and that closing the facilities would cause economic harm to small, local oil producers paying to use the facilities.

Impact on oil production

The dozen or so oil producers that contributed produced water to the facility in recent years had argued that abruptly closing the operation would cause them undue financial harm because they had nowhere else to put it. They requested more time to establish an injection facility, and ended up getting it.

The Central Valley Water Board and Valley Water, which has no involvement in the continuing injection operation, said they had no information on how many oil producers havefohave alternative means of disposal.

Valley Water, a nonprofit whose roots reach back to a cooperative agreement among oil producers in 1932, had contended it was not responsible for the underground plume of pollution, which regulators say contained chloride concentrations up to 19 times the maximum allowable discharge. It argued percolation disposal by oil producers decades ago created the problem.

The organization also argued the plume was not moving toward Bakersfield. But staff of the regional water quality board argued the pollution would someday enter the Kern River, and with it, Bakersfield’s drinking water.

The Fee 34 and Race Track Hill facilities worked in unison. The former separated out oil before pumping produced water about two miles to the latter, which ran sprinklers 24 hours a day spraying the fluid on Tamarisk trees and bermuda grass, both known for their tolerance to the facility’s salty, high-boron waste stream.

Continuing crackdown

While no other produced-water disposal facility in the Central Valley used sprinklers the way the Race Track Hill operation did, the region has an estimated 539 open pits, known as ponds, where produced water is left to evaporate and seep underground. Many are not considered a threat to groundwater quality because they are located above groundwater of equally poor or worse quality.

The regional water quality board continues to try and bring noncompliant facilities into regulatory compliance after many years in which the operations were either overlooked or operated outside acceptable environmental standards.

One facility now under scrutiny is Valley Water’s huge disposal pond complex in McKittrick. With dozens of open pits in operation, the facilities are seen as a problem not because they are located above good quality water but because the operation’s high volume is believed to be overwhelming the area’s ability to absorb fluids.

“The problem is they just discharge so much of it … that it actually migrates all the water down into higher-quality water” east of the operation, said Patrick Pulupa, executive officer of the Central Valley Water Board, which oversees the regional agency.

Valley Water’s new general manager, Jason Meadors, said the organization is interested in protecting the environment and meeting the state’s water-quality requirements. As part of that, he said, the organization is gathering data about the McKittrick facility’s waste stream.

“I think it’s very important that the operation continues,” he said. “It provides a place for producers to discharge their produced water. But I don’t think we really know the impacts to groundwater at this point.