Readers were surprised to learn from my Sunday story that oil companies are allowed to send their drilling muds and boring waste into unlined pits.
My story was not about the muds or boring waste. It was about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The practice includes the use of chemicals to help free up oil trapped in shale formations.
Fracking fluids — not drilling muds and boring waste — were illegally discharged into two unlined pits, called sumps. Regional water authorities found chemicals in concentrations above safe thresholds.
The regional board is now investigating the sumps of several dozen oil companies in the San Joaquin Valley. The concern is that the contamination might wind up in water for drinking and irrigating crops.
The drilling muds and boring waste have been allowed in the unlined pits under a waiver granted several years ago. The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board does not view the muds and waste as a hazardous discharge.
But the waiver will expire next month. Environmental groups are pressing the state to end it and require more protection for the underground water table.
The two sumps contaminated by fracking are near Shafter in Kern County, which produces most of the oil in the Valley and in the state. The sumps and wells are owned by Vintage Production, a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum Corp.
To be abundantly clear: The drilling muds and boring waste are not part of fracking, which takes place after the well is drilled. The muds and boring waste have long been considered a low threat.
But these days, even the muds and wastes contain many kinds of chemicals used in the drilling process to help reduce friction and improve efficiency, according to the Center for Biological Diversity. Some chemicals are related to gas and diesel.
The Center for Biological Diversity, a national nonprofit watchdog representing many activists, has filed a statement with the regional board, opposing the waiver renewal. The group says the time has come to begin regulating the drilling leftovers.
In 1980s, river fight not yet about salmon
A few days before Christmas 1988, 14 environmental and fishing groups sued federal leaders over the renewal of 40-year water contracts, mostly for farmers who get water from Millerton Lake.
Nearly 25 years later, news stories say the lawsuit was all about the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation violating California law when it dried up the river and ended two salmon runs.
That is true. And, four years after the restoration began, it is appropriate to mention it as the project encounters funding problems, downstream cropland damage and construction delays.
But in the late 1980s, the drama was not about restoring salmon. It was about contract renewals and environmental impact studies.
At the time, federal leaders sought to dismiss the environmental lawsuit, saying they did not need environmental review for contract renewals.
Federal leaders even pushed the renewals forward, despite the lawsuit. A legal and political battle continued for years.
Finally in October 1993, a U.S. District Court in Sacramento rejected the idea of simply dismissing the lawsuit and opened the door to considering the state law protecting fisheries downstream of dams. The story I wrote at the time quoted environmental leaders who began emphasizing salmon runs and the state law.