Oil-field contaminants found in Santa Barbara County water wells

May 28, 2019

Findings by the U.S. Geological Survey heighten concerns that a tripling of the County’s onshore oil production could contaminate critical sources of groundwater for Santa Barbara County

Santa Barbara County, CA – Community groups are calling on Santa Barbara County to deny three new proposals to triple onshore oil production in the County using high-pressure steam and acidizing in Cat Canyon after federal scientists found evidence of oil-field fluids in groundwater underlying the nearby Orcutt oil field. The contamination was discovered at a field where Pacific Coast Energy Corporation (“PCEC “) has operated steam injection drilling and acidizing for over a decade. Fortunately, the County denied PCEC’s request to expand its operations in 2016.

Now, the U.S. Geological Survey (“USGS”) has just unveiled findings of groundwater contamination in Kern, Ventura, and Santa Barbara Counties. In response, Ventura County immediately imposed a moratorium on all new steam injection near groundwater supplies. The three proposed Cat Canyon projects all rely on steam injection and would drill through the Santa Maria Groundwater Basin—a key source of drinking water for the Santa Maria region and irrigation for prime farmland and vineyards.

“The results of the USGS tests present grave health and safety concerns. The tests reveal that contaminants from cyclic steam drilling and acidizing are contaminating water wells. The risk to our water supply is unacceptable. The County should not approve any further oil projects that put our drinking water at risk,” said Katie Davis, Chair of Los Padres Sierra Club.

The USGS says the full Orcutt report will be available later this year but the preliminary results were recently presented to the California Water Boards in a live web simulcast. The study found:

  • 4 out of 16 wells sampled in the Orcutt field had geochemical indicators of oil-field fluids mixed with groundwater.
  • Methane and other gases may be migrating through formations along leaky wells/wellbores or faults and mixing with overlying groundwater.
  • Evidence of wastewater from oil extraction was also discovered in the groundwater.

The discovery of oil-field fluids in groundwater in the Orcutt oil field comes as oil companies ERG, Aera, and PetroRock seek approval to drill over 700 new oil wells in the nearby Cat Canyon oil field using the same high-intensity steaming techniques and wastewater injection linked to contamination identified in the USGS study.

In a recent letter submitted to the County by the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) on behalf of Sierra Club and Santa Barbara County Action Network (“SBCAN”), EDC presented evidence from its own investigation that revealed that ERG has had dozens of Notices of Violations issued by local and state agencies, is responsible for starting two wildfires on its property that burned over thirty-five acres, had an employee die operating an oil rig on its lease, and illegally injected toxic wastewater into freshwater aquifers underlying Cat Canyon through forty-seven wells in violation of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

“The Cat Canyon oil projects threaten our groundwater, air quality, wildlife, and public safety and will worsen climate change,” said Alicia Roessler, Staff Attorney for EDC. “ERG has an appalling history of oil spills and violations and should not be allowed to expand its operations.”

“For several years SBCAN has been raising concerns about oil-field fluids potentially contaminating the Santa Maria Valley Groundwater Basin, on which 200,000 people rely for drinking water,” said Ken Hough, Executive Director of SBCAN. “Unfortunately, the USGS findings bear out this concern–it’s not a potential, it’s real.”

ERG’s project is currently being considered by the County Planning Commission and will be discussed tomorrow morning. Although the applicant has asked for a continuance, EDC, Sierra Club and SBCAN will ask the Commission to direct County staff to prepare findings for denial.

EDC’s comment letter can be found here.

The Orcutt presentation can be found here.

The Oxnard presentation can be found here.

The Kern County report can be found in a link in this Bakersfield Now story.

The Environmental Defense Center, a non-profit law firm, protects and enhances the local environment through education, advocacy, and legal action and works primarily within Ventura, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo counties. Since 1977, EDC has empowered community-based organizations to advance environmental protection. EDC’s focus areas include protection of the Santa Barbara Channel, ensuring clean water, preserving open space and wildlife, and addressing climate and energy. Learn more about EDC at www.EnvironmentalDefenseCenter.org.

The Sierra Club is a national, environmental organization that protects communities, wild places, and the planet. The Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter serves Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties. Learn more about Sierra Club Los Padres Chapter at http://lospadres.sierraclub.org/

Santa Barbara County Action Network works to promote social and economic justice, to preserve our environmental and agricultural resources, and to create sustainable communities. SB CAN advocates a holistic approach to community planning that integrates housing, open space, and transportation to meet the needs of all members of our community and future generations. Learn more at www.sbcan.org.


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