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Coalition seeks to halt dumping of toxic drilling muds in Central Valley

POSTED November 12, 2013 7:25 p.m.

Environmentalist groups have joined together with community health organizations to challenge fracking practices in California’s Central Valley, as they believe there is an imminent threat to the expansion of drilling throughout the state.

Disturbed by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board’s plan to “keep letting oil companies dump toxic drilling-mud waste throughout the valley with minimal safeguards,” the coalition sent a letter to the water board urging them to not move forward with next month’s decision regarding exempting drilling mud waste discharge from regulations.

“The water board will endanger the health of every person in the Central Valley if it gives these toxic drilling muds a free pass,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “As fracking and acidization open new areas to oil drilling, the board has a duty to the people to protect our water and public health – not make it easier for oil companies to dump their dangerous waste without safeguards.”

Citing several state environmental laws, the coalition states that these drilling muds, which are used to facilitate drilling of oil and gas wells, contain numerous harmful chemicals that will have detrimental effects and create severe risks to public health.

“The valley already has the worst water quality in the state,” said Sofia Parina, senior attorney at the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, an organization working alongside several environmental justice communities in the valley. “All Californians have a basic right to clean and safe drinking water, and failing to meaningfully regulate these dangerous drilling practices infringes upon it.”

According to the Center for Biological Diversity, the exposure to the chemicals contained in drilling muds can damage the skin, eyes and other sensory organs, liver, kidney and brain, as well as the respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, immune and nervous systems.

The California Department of Conservation’s Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources found that roughly 4,680 new wells were drilled in California in 2012, with the majority of the state’s oil production taking place in the Central Valley.

The environmentalist coalition believes that practices such as fracking, acidization and other unconventional oil-production techniques will significantly increase the amount of new wells in the valley.

Drill cuttings can also be found in drilling muds, which, according to the CBD, may also contain hazardous heavy metals such as aluminum, mercury, cadmium, arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, nickel and zinc – another reason why the coalition believes the water board must reconsider the minimal restrictions placed on the dumping of drilling mud discharge.

“In 2008, the board passed a five-year waiver from regulations for drilling mud discharge, exempting dischargers from reporting and monitoring requirements that apply to other types of waste discharge,” said Kretzmann. “That waiver is set to expire on December 4, but the board is proposing a new five-year waiver with minimal restrictions and without a study of the environmental and health risks of its waiver. Instead, the board is relying on a 32-year-old finding that drilling mud discharges will have no adverse water-quality impacts.”

The group of environmentalists and health organizations is hoping to have the water board fully evaluate both the environmental and health risks before approving “blanket waivers.”

“Extending the waiver is inimical to the public interest and fails to comply with state law,” reads the letter signed by the coalition.

The coalition is formed by members of the Center for Biological Diversity, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment, the Central California Environmental Justice Network, the Association of Irritate Residents, the Physicians for Social Responsibility – Los Angeles, Communities for a Better Environment, Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, the San Joaquin Valley Latino Environmental Advancement Policy Project, and the Sierra Club.

To learn more about the coalition’s efforts in challenging the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Board, call the Center for Biological Diversity at (520) 623-5252.

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