Center for Biological Diversity

For Immediate Release, September 5, 2018

Contact: Hollin Kretzmann, (510) 844-7133,

Lawsuit Confronts Water Board's Approval of Oil-waste Dumping in Kern County

Chemicals From Unlined Pits Already Contaminating Groundwater

BAKERSFIELD, Calif.— The Center for Biological Diversity sued the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board today over its decision to allow continued dumping of toxic oil-waste fluid into 83 unlined pits near Buttonwillow, Calif. The regional board’s staff confirmed that harmful chemicals discharged into these pits have spread underground and contaminated groundwater used for water-supply wells.

“Despite knowing this contamination is spreading, the water board is letting the oil industry continue this dangerous dumping,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center. “It’s a slap in the face to the families, farms and businesses that depend on the Central Valley’s precious water resources.”

Valley Water Management Company dumps an average of 2.8 million gallons of chemical-laden wastewater per day into its McKittrick 1 and 1-3 pit facilities near Buttonwillow. The contamination has spread underground for at least 2.2 miles, but the full extent of the damage is still unknown.

The regional board’s staff report confirms that wastewater has reached multiple groundwater sources below, including those connected to active water-supply wells. It also confirms that the discharged wastewater contains hazardous chemicals, including dangerous levels of cancer-causing benzene. As a result of the contamination, groundwater that had been suitable for municipal and agricultural use is now unsuitable for both.

However, at its meeting on April 5, the regional board rejected calls from the public to halt the toxic discharges, instead voting to allow the dumping to continue indefinitely with no timetable for stopping.  

On May 7 the Center petitioned the State Water Resources Control Board to rescind the regional board’s decision and order an immediate halt to the discharges, but the agency ignored the appeal.

Today’s lawsuit filed in the Kern County Superior Court challenges the regional board’s decision not to shut down the facility even as the groundwater contamination spreads.

California is the only state with significant oil production that allows wastewater to be dumped into unlined pits. There are hundreds of active pits around the state. In 2015 an independent scientific panel recommended that California phase out the use of unlined pits, citing their danger to groundwater. Despite calls from an independent panel of experts to phase out this dangerous practice, the regional board has refused to do so. The regional board has even approved the disposal of wastewater from fracking, despite state prohibitions against this kind of disposal.

Valley Water receives some wastewater from the South Belridge oilfield, which is one of the most heavily fracked fields in the state.

“The people of Kern County already suffer from some of the worst fossil fuel pollution in the nation,” Kretzmann said. “They shouldn’t have to sacrifice another drop of water to the oil industry.”

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 1.6 million members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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