Oil drilling dumping banned by water board

Kern County was at the heart of a heated debate in Sacramento Thursday involving the dumping of oil drilling fluids. The Regional Water Board decided to end the waiver for the practice.

SACRAMENTO, CA - Kern County was at the heart of a heated debate in Sacramento Thursday involving the dumping of oil drilling fluids. The water board decided to stop the practice done without question by Central Valley oil companies for decades. Staff said it is all in an effort to protect groundwater.

One by one they spoke, including environmentalists like Hollin Kretzmann from the Center for Biological Diversity.

"This is about drilling muds, but it's also priorities and values," said Kretzmann.

There were also a dozen representatives from the oil industry.

"We would strongly encourage the board to maintain the status quo," said Margaret Rosegay, the attorney representing the California Independent Petroleum Association and the Western States Petroleum Association.

The discussion was about a proposed measure to get rid of unlined mud sumps, essentially pits oil companies use to dispose of fluids that come up when drilling an oil well. Water board staff explained to the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board that oil companies have had a waiver on this practice since the 1980's, but on Wednesday that allowance dried up.

"The 2008 waiver expired yesterday," said Stephen Klein, a water resources control engineer for the central valley.

Staff did not recommend renewal because they say, oil practices have changed.

"Oil drilling practices have increased since 2008," said Klein. "We have also seen an increase in drilling technologies and increases in drilling outside of existing oil fields."

This was a concern brought to staff originally by the Center for Biological Diversity.

"It's a question of whether we take the quality of water and public health seriously," said Kretzmann.

Industry representatives told the board there was no need to eliminate the waiver.

"We do not agree that techniques have changed to a degree for a new or supplemental CEQA analysis," said Rosegay.

The industry had an expert testify to the practice's safety, but in the end the board sided with staff, voting almost unanimously not to renew the waiver.

Now the only way oil companies can dump is to apply for a $1,900 permit. Kern County oil man Les Clark says he's already had a driller say this will close his business.

"The call was that we're going to shut down our drilling rig and when we get into that knowing that I represent most of the Mom and Pops in Kern County.... I have some real concerns with that," said Clark.

The board's vote does not mean that a waiver may not come back in the future. In fact, staff is already working on a year-long study to make a recommendation to the board on how to control this practice.

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