Drought-Stricken California Farmers Buy Recycled Oil Wastewater For Irrigation

Most Americans, except those who are under the spell of Republicans or the anti-environment fossil fuel industry probably comprehend the necessity of water to human life. It is also likely that most Americans understand that food is necessary to sustain human life and that a necessary ingredient of food production is water. Although modern society functions due to fossil fuels, particularly oil products, human life is not sustained or dependent on oil. However, that simple biological fact is lost on the oil industry in the California Great Central Valley that produces and supplies the nation with a majority of the food consumed by a very large percentage of the American population.

Some Americans may be aware that California is in the fourth year of a projected permanent severe drought as a direct result of anthropogenic climate change. Subsequently, the nation’s food supply is going to be, if not already, negatively impacted and still, the oil industry is busy pumping the precious resource out of the ground with no regard for the dire shortage or impact on the people of California. However, the industry is sensitive to the needs of agriculture and is making a profit by selling 21 million gallons of recycled waste water daily from oil production to farmers in the Central Valley.

Before anyone praises the oil industry for making a profit from stealing irrigation water to process oil and then selling it back to drought-stricken farmers, they may be interested in knowing the processed waste water used on crops they eventually consume is tainted with high levels of acetone and methylene chloride; two chemicals that are highly toxic to human beings. Testing has also revealed that the “recycled” waste water irrigating crops was found to have oil present; oil the industry promised has been removed during the recycling process.

Tests that discovered the oil and toxins in the ‘recycled‘  water were conducted by Water Defense, an environmental group founded by actor Mark Ruffalo in 2010. The tests revealed that the industrial solvent methylene chloride used to ‘soften’ crude oil was four times the concentration found in 2013’s ExxonMobil tar sands pipeline spill that decimated an Arkansas river.  The chief scientist conducting the tests for Water Defense, Scott Smith, said that “All these chemicals of concern are flowing into the irrigation canal” farmers are tapping into to irrigate crops. He continued that  “If you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined.” Government authorities never before required recycled oil industry water to be tested for the toxic chemicals used in oil production although they did test for naturally-occurring toxins like salts and arsenic according to “decades-old” standards.

Chevron, just one oil company in the region, produces about 70,000 barrels of oil and 760,000 barrels of waste water each day from the Kern River oil field. Naturally, Chevron pushed back against the independent test results and denied that its waste water contained any “dangerous” chemicals. The company released a statement claiming that “protection of people and the environment is a core value for Chevron, and we take all necessary steps to ensure the protection of our water resources.”

However, after Water Defense publicly release its test results, “out of an abundance of caution” Chevron will begin contracting with an outside group, but not an environmental watchdog, to test the waste water it sells back to farmers to irrigate crops. One thing Chevron refuses, and will never do, is to disclose publicly or to state regulators what fluids or chemicals it uses in the water for oil drilling or well maintenance. The assistant executive officer of the Central Valley Water Quality Control Board, Clay Rodgers, said “We need to make sure we fully understand what goes into the waste water.”

Regardless what Chevron admits, an agriculture extension agent and irrigation water expert from U.C. Davis, Blake Sanden, said the processed waste water cannot possibly be safe because farmers can smell oil and chemicals in the water they are buying to irrigate their crops. Apparently, the farmers were told not to concern themselves with the residual oil or chemicals in the water because “the soil is ‘likely’ filtering out any really harmful toxins before they can be absorbed by the crops.” Sanden said it is impossible to know if toxins and oil are making their way into the roots and leaves of crops because “the state is not testing for oil and petrochemicals in waste water. He said ” you’re not going to find chemicals of concern if you don’t look for them;” particularly if regulators do not know which chemicals to look for.

According to the state agency that regulates oil industry waste water, the California State Water Resources Control Board, it does not matter much whether the poisoned recycled waste water is sold to farmers for irrigation or pumped into the aquifer because any monitoring of oil fields is a “low priority.” In what is a standard practice across the nation by underfunded agencies and those indebted to big oil, the burden for testing waste water falls “largely on the oil companies” themselves as prudent self-regulators. These are the same oil companies that crusade to eliminate testing and disclosure requirements out of their concern for wasting time, expense, and reducing profits.

It is unlikely anything is going to change anytime soon regardless of the attention on the drought and vanishing water resources. Americans are just going to have to trust the oil industry when they say the waste water they are selling to farmers for irrigating crops is safe. Still, Water Defense’s Smith says “that it’s important for testing of waste water to continue,” but his organization wields no regulatory power over agriculture or the powerful oil industry.

Smith said that his organization “wants to work with Chevron, we want to work with the regulators. We want to use multiple methods of testing. That’s the best way to figure out what’s in that water and what can be done to solve it.” However, Chevron or any other oil company is not going to reveal what is in the waste water for tests to discover; particularly when they can freely pump clean water out of the ground, mix it with poison and oil, claim it is recycled and then sell it back to farmers for a profit.

Americans and California’s farmers will just have to “trust big oil” that the waste water for irrigation is really recycled and that the crops they consume from California are free of carcinogens and crude oil. The good news is the fear of contaminated irrigation water and tainted crops will likely only last for 12 to 18 more months which is when experts predict California will be completely out of water.

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