Oil Field Sump Faces Scrutiny

Monday, August 5, 2013 @ 07:08 PM gHale

A Bakersfield, CA, oil producer is facing closer analysis and the industry in general more regulation after water quality watchdogs found a second instance of unauthorized chemical dumping in a local pond, officials said.

The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board found Vintage Production California LLC, part of Los Angeles-based oil giant Occidental Petroleum Corp., discharged oilfield fluids into two sumps near the local pond in Shafter.

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An agency official said the state may now want to test other sumps owned by the company.

The findings add momentum to a staff proposal to tighten scrutiny of the local oil industry’s waste disposal practices. Trade groups have said such a move would increase oil producers’ costs by requiring more paperwork.

In the Central Valley, oil companies can only dump drilling fluid and mud into unlined sumps. The idea is for the materials to remove cuttings and cool or lubricate drill bits; company officials do not consider them a threat to groundwater.

As long as all they’re dumping is drilling fluid, oil field operators do not need to fill out hazardous waste discharge reports.

But that may change if agency staff proceeds with a recommendation, expected later this year, to end a 30-year-old paperwork waiver on drilling mud discharges.

“We’re questioning the assumption that it’s always going to be drilling mud,” said Douglas Patteson, a supervising water resource control engineer at the agency.

A spokeswoman for Vintage declined Wednesday to comment on the agency’s findings other than to say addressing the issues raised by the water board “is a top priority” for the company.

Under state law, Vintage faces fines of up to $5,000 per day for unauthorized discharges, which according to a July 23 water board report took place Sept. 30 and Oct. 6 through Oct. 8.

Those dates refer to previously reported instances of dumping at a Shafter-area Vintage well. The activity was evident in an online video showing workers discharging fluids into an unlined sump. Local farmer and environmentalist Tom Frantz filmed the incident.

The agency since determined that between 89 and 175 barrels (3,738 to 7,350 gallons) of unauthorized oil fluids ended up discharged into the sump.

The fluids — none of which officials permitted for discharge into the sump — consisted of potassium chloride water, liquids that naturally exist in oil formations, and “linear fluid.”

An agency investigator wrote that linear fluid is similar or identical to mixtures used in hydraulic fracturing or fracking. Fracking is when a driller pumps water, sand and concentrations of sometimes toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to break up shale and release oil and gas.

Water board staff learned of the unauthorized dumping after Vintage had already closed the sump. Unable to test its fluids, they found a similar sump the company operated nearby.

At the second sump they found chloride and boron at levels exceeding allowable limits. They also found benzene and petroleum hydrocarbons with gasoline and diesel characteristics, all in concentrations at least 30 times higher than allowed in drinking water.

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