Is Oil Wastewater Our Next Big Ecological Crisis?

Here’s the thing about our environment: We want to know things. Sounds simple, right? It’s actually wildly complex. Many of our ecological regulations are decades old, funding is low, and massive companies have grandfathered in their chemical disposal practices. That’s not to say that these practices are necessarily harmful, but when it comes to issue like our food supply and the water table, we need more data. Knowledge is power, as they say. So a dearth of knowledge is destabilizing.

So it goes with oil wastewater. When massive companies like Chevron produce a barrel of oil, they also produce 15 barrels of briny water. In Kern County, CA the Chevron wastewater is treated internally, then mixed with other water sources, then sold to farmers at a discounted rate. For people trying to raise crops in a drought-ridden state, that makes a hell of a prospect. Not surprisingly, the technique has been going on for more than 20 years.

Here’s the rub: That water has chemicals in it, many of which Chevron considers to be proprietary to their oil extraction process. Their reluctance to make these chemicals public creates an information brown out. As a result, we don’t fully know what’s in the water that’s going into our food. Or, whether those chemicals have a propensity to transfer over to the food itself.

Is this absolute cause for panic? No. Chevron notes that the water has passed the Kern County’s Cawelo Water District standards, state regulations, and their own internal tests. However, Water Defense — a non-profit founded by Mark Ruffalo — vocally disputed those results. Their independent tests found the toxic chemical methylene chloride in water that had been distributed to farms (though they also noted that their samples passed water district samples).

“With our drought in California, looking for ways to reuse water is a good thing,” says Andrew Grinberg of Clean Water Action. “The problem is there hasn’t been a systematic approach to look at whether this is safe for humans or if it’s not.”

It would be easy to see this as a local issue, or even a state issue, but when you note that California’s Central Valley grows 40% of the produce we eat in this country, the bigger implications become easy to recognize. With media outlets and clean water advocate Erin Brockovich circling around the story, hopefully it’ll get more public attention soon. Because in a world where corporate interests loom large, the people demanding answers is perhaps the only thing that will serve to create change.

VisitClean Water Actionand Food & Water Watch to learn more.