Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, August 3, 2016

Patrick Sullivan, (415) 517-9364,

Lawsuit Challenges Plan to Turn California Aquifer Into Dump for Oil Waste

Suit Aims to Protect Underground Water in San Luis Obispo County,
Dozens of Other California Aquifers

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity today sued California regulators for supporting a so-called “aquifer exemption” plan to turn underground water in the Price Canyon area of San Luis Obispo County into a permanent disposal site for oil wastewater and other fluids. There are at least 100 water supply wells for drinking water and crop irrigation within a mile of this aquifer.

Today’s lawsuit, filed in Superior Court in San Luis Obispo, faults regulators for not analyzing the aquifer exemption plan’s risks as required by the California Environmental Quality Act. The suit asks the court to set aside the state’s approval of the aquifer exemption and halt oil company injection into this underground water until regulators have complied with CEQA.

“Oil regulators are disturbingly determined to turn this aquifer into an oil industry waste dump, but they can’t just shrug off California’s environmental laws,” said Maya Golden-Krasner, the Center attorney bringing the lawsuit. “As California sweats out another year of drought, officials must analyze the risks of sacrificing underground water in San Luis Obispo County and across the state to oil companies. If we let oil companies pollute these aquifers, Californians will bitterly regret that decision in the dry decades to come.”

The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources submitted the aquifer exemption application in February to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. If the EPA approves the plan to exempt the aquifer from protection under the Safe Drinking Water Act, oil giant Freeport-McMoRan could move forward with plans to drill hundreds of new wells in the area.  

This is state officials’ first attempt to seek an aquifer exemption following revelations last year that oil companies have been allowed to dump toxic waste into scores of protected underground water supplies across California (interactive map), in violation of federal and state water-protection laws.

A Center analysis has identified serious flaws in the aquifer exemption application for Arroyo Grande. The application, for example, fails to mention the company’s plans to dramatically expand operations in the Arroyo Grande oil field. Freeport hopes to drill up to 350 new wells (including injection wells) to achieve up to a 10-fold increase in daily oil production.
The application also does not include any analysis of what will happen to the aquifer if that expansion proceeds — including possible changes in pressures underground and the potential for inducing fractures that could transport pollution to other water sources.

Oil industry wastewater can contain high levels of benzene and other cancer-causing chemicals. State oil officials’ own study detected benzene levels in oil wastewater at thousands of times the federal limits for drinking water.

“It’s shocking that Gov. Jerry Brown’s oil regulators are supporting the oil industry’s efforts to get federal permission to dump waste into California’s protected aquifers,” Golden-Krasner said. “California officials must put our thirsty state’s water needs ahead of oil company profits.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.1 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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