January 16th, 2017

Community Voices: Play fair in debate over reclaimed water

By Bill Allayaud, The Bakersfield Californian


Last Nov. 29, The Californian published an opinion by Guillermo Ceja of Clean Water Action, questioning columnist Lois Henry’s enthusiastic support for the use of treated oilfield wastewater for irrigating crops (“Community Voices: Testing lacks on crops and oilfield wastewater”).

Mr. Ceja accurately pointed out that the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board formed an independent food safety expert panel “to ascertain the possible risks associated with using produced water on crops” precisely because the safety of this practice is uncertain.

Ceja’s column sure did attract responses! But who wrote those responses? Only one of the responders identified their affiliation. It turns out, however, they were all from folks with vested interest in continuing this form of irrigation.

On Dec. 2, in the first assault on Mr. Ceja’s opinions, Hal Bopp (Letter to the editor: “About that oilfield wastewater”) claimed that harmful chemicals are not used in the oil operations on the east side of Kern County. Mr. Bopp should know better. It would have been more honest if he identified himself as the former Supervisor for the State Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources, and that he worked there for more than 30 years. He was in charge of this state agency that was, in the last five years, exposed as being captured by the oil industry and which was forced onto a path of reform by the State Legislature. In any case, he is clouding the issue. While no fracking is occurring in the Kern River oilfield, dozens of other toxic chemicals are regularly used to drill and maintain the oil wells that produce the water eventually used for watering crops. Mr. Bopp must know that.

On Dec. 5, Dave Ansolabehere failed to identify himself as the general ganager of the Cawelo Water District, which happens to be a principal in this issue – they buy treated wastewater from Chevron and other oil producers and sell it to farmers for irrigation (Letter to the editor: “Working hard to supply safe and clean water”). It should be noted that they pay far less to the oil companies for water than they do to buy water from the State Water Project, so there is an incentive to maintain the relationships. Unfortunately, Cawelo’s initial water quality testing and study was flawed and incomplete. To their credit, they are proceeding with more comprehensive testing so we hope they get it right this time. Complicating the issue is that only a fraction of the toxic chemicals in wastewater have been revealed by the oil companies, let alone tested for.

Then, on Dec. 7, Lindsay Barnes made a dismissive personal attack on Mr. Ceja by saying, “The author, an art major and self-described ‘community organizer,’ attempts to dispute multiple scientific studies showing that food grown with treated oilfield produced water safe …” (Letter to the editor: “Rely on science, not guesswork”). Mr. Ceja is both a consumer and concerned citizen, and is working with possibly affected communities in his role with Clean Water Action; he, along with groups like ours, is asking the right questions about this practice. Oh, and by the way, Lindsay Barnes failed to state that she works for Chevron.

Finally, on Dec. 13, there was an extensive response from Beatris Espericueta Sanders (Community Voices: “Rigorous testing seems to apply only to us”), the only respondent who identified herself. She works for the Kern County Farm Bureau. Like Cawelo Water District, the farmers are very interested in maintaining the arrangement, as they can buy water from Chevron for three to six times less than they can get it from other sources. Ms. Sanders unfortunately engages in name-calling (calling Clean Water Action, and by implication, Environmental Working Group and others, “radical environmentalist groups”) and states that these groups’ concerns are simply meant to “ridicule” farmers and oil companies and this particular irrigation practice.

I beg to differ – the questions we ask are completely legitimate and are the same questions that Food Safety Expert Panel are asking. It is critical to ask and accurately answer these questions to determine if this practice is safe for consumers and the environment. On the other hand, it is self-serving and possibly irresponsible for vested interests to claim the practice is safe when so much is unknown.

Bill Allayaud is California Director of Government Affairs for the Environmental Working Group in Sacramento.