Vintage Oil agrees to reduce pollutants in runoff

May 24, 2013
Santa Paula News

In a consent decree filed on May 13, 2013 with the US District Court, Central District of California, Vintage Petroleum agreed, “to significantly improve management of polluted runoff from the Rincon/Grubb Oil Field.” 

The 4,236-acre oil field is located in the mountains lining highway 101 as it heads north along the coast from Ventura to Santa Barbara. According to State records Vintage operates 2,635 wells in the County, with 334 in the Grubb lease. Storm runoff in the oil field drains directly to waterways that ultimately discharge to beaches in Northern Ventura County. 

The agreement is the result of a suit brought by the Environmental Defense Center (EDC) a non-profit environmental law firm operating primarily in Santa Barbara, Ventura and San Luis Obispo Counties. 

The EDC states in its press release that “oil field operations commonly discharge a wide range of conventional and hazardous pollutants, including total suspended solids, oil and grease, pH, benzene, lead, arsenic, chlorides and ethanol xylenes,” which can “pose risks to fish and other aquatic organisms, wildlife and human health.”

According to the court document, signed by all parties, “[The consent decree] is not evidence of any wrongdoing or misconduct on the part of Vintage.” 

“The measures required in this settlement agreement will improve water quality along the miles of Ventura County Beaches that receive untreated runoff from the Rincon Grubb oil field,” said Brian Segee, lead attorney for the EDC in this lawsuit and related negotiations. “Oil and gas fields comprise large swaths of our local area and the rise of fracking means that storm-water runoff from these fields may contain additional carcinogenic chemicals and other hazardous materials that were not previously present.” He said that this settlement “is an important first step towards addressing this pollution.”

As part of the agreement Vintage will be examining its storm-water management practices and “implementing effective pollution control measures” based on Best Managements Practices throughout the oil field. Vintage is required to add at least eight additional water quality testing sites and increase the frequency of sampling. Many requirements of the agreement must be in place by July 1 of this year. 

Fracking is also addressed in the agreement. The process involves high-pressure injection of water, sand and chemicals deep underground with the intention of fracturing shale formations in order to release the oil and gas trapped in the hard, dense rock. In addition to notifying the EDC at least ten days before any fracking occurs, Vintage must also  “identify and monitor for chemicals and other hazardous components present in fracking fluid.” 

According to the press release issued by the EDC, a lawsuit was filed against Vintage in early 2012 after “Vintage consistently reported pollution levels well above applicable guidelines and failed to take correction action.” The EDC accused Vintage of violating the rules of California’s Industrial Storm Water General Permit (ISWGP), which prohibits the discharge of “pollutants, including total suspended solids, oil and grease, and toxic chemicals in excess of water quality standards.” In addition the EDC alleged that Vintage failed to utilize the “best available pollution treatment technologies,” as required by the ISWGP. 

ISWGP is part of the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System and forms the core of the federal Clean Water Act. The EDC says, “enforcement actions against oil and gas facilities are rare” because of a 1987 amendment made by Congress (to the CWA) that in effect created a presumption that oil and gas fields were exempt from the storm water requirements of the CWA. But, in fact the EDC points out, they are only exempt “so long as runoff from these facilities is uncontaminated by field activities or operations.” The CWA provides for the right of citizens to file “a civil enforcement suit” in order to enforce requirements of the ISWGP. This case, the EDC says, is the first they know of in California that challenges the presumption of exemption and forces an oil operator to reduce pollutants to meet the CWA standards.  

“[The settlement] was reviewed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the U.S. Department of Justice – under Clean Water Act regulations they are required to be given the opportunity to review and comment on settlements arising under the Clean Water Act citizen suit provision – and (the agreement) was approved by the presiding Judge in the case (Hon. Fernando Olguin),” wrote Segee responding via email. “The Judge retains continuing jurisdiction over the settlement to enforce the terms if necessary.” 

Also as part of the agreement Vintage is required to set aside $95,700 to “fund a Supplemental Environment Project.” It will be administered by the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment and will be used for projects “related to the reduction, prevention, research or mitigation of pollutants to coastal watersheds between Rincon creek and the Ventura River.” 

The EDC says that current laws allow oil fields to “discharge storm water runoff polluted by toxic pollutants, hazardous substance, sediment, and oil and grease.” Currently at the Rincon Grubb oil field, many point sources - such as wells pads, roads, gullies, storage and processing units - collect and disperse runoff. “Pollution from these sources is discharged into one of the six primary creeks – Madriano, Javon, Padre Juan, Ice Box, Amphitheater and Diablo – within the facility’s boundaries.” Runoff passes through the oil field and those creeks before “flowing, untreated into the Pacific Ocean.” According to the EDC, Vintage has reported high levels of pollutants; one reading was 40,000 times higher than the stated “benchmark” level. 

Attorney, Michael Lozeau of Lozeau Drury LLP served as co-counsel with the EDC on this case. 

Vintage Petroleum is currently being investigated by the Central Valley Water Board due to allegations resulting from a YouTube video shot in October 2012, by a private citizen that appears to show the dumping of frack fluids into an unlined pond, without proper permits, near a hydraulic fracturing job at a well near Shafter, in Kern County. The CVWB issued an investigative enforcement order and the investigation is ongoing.

Vintage Petroleum is owned by Occidental Petroleum, a publicly traded company. Occidental representatives did not respond to requests for comment.

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