BAKERSFIELD (KPIX 5) -- You've likely seen them when out food shopping and if you have kids you've probably bought some of those tangerines or grapes. Well, it turns out there's something about them -- and some other California grown fruits and nuts -- that might surprise you.
KPIX SPECIAL REPORT: Oilfield Wastewater Irrigation Series
Every drop of water counts in California's drought-stricken Central Valley. But, some of the biggest growers in the area aren't worried about conserving, because they've found a steady supply.
"It was a well-kept secret," said local almond farmer Tom Frantz. He found out about the water's unusual source a few years ago after getting curious about a strange-looking pond filled with steaming hot water just a few miles from his orchard.
"The smell, it's like rotten eggs, sulphur, asphalt," he said.
Turns out it's from the nearby Kern River oilfield, where more than 10,000 wells use steam injection to extract oil. Each gallon of oil extracted produces ten times as much wastewater.
Every day it flows from the pond into a reservoir, then down a canal and straight into neighboring orchards. Even though the discharge goes through various filters and booms to become what's known as "produced" water, it still smells like crude.
"This is stinking water that still has a bit of a sheen of oil on it, when it gets to the farmers," said Frantz.
It doesn't sound very appetizing: Using wastewater from an oilfield to grow fruits and nuts. But, we found the practice has been going on in the southern part of the Central Valley for at least 20 years. Some of the most common brands of tangerines, pistachios, and table grapes are grown with oilfield wastewater.
"We are not aware of any significant risks," said Clay Rodgers with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board. "The fact that there is water of low salt content coming out with the oil, and the fact that it's a water-poor area, has naturally made, for a lack of a better way to put it, a symbiotic relationship," said Rodgers.
The practice is unique, and is not even allowed in most states. But, Rodgers says in California, it's okay as long as the water meets standard wastewater discharge requirements.
Environmental scientist Seth Shonkoff believes that needs to change. "Sending it to agriculture to grow our food crops is a very blatant and clear exposure pathway," he said.
Shonkoff sits on a newly formed food safety committee that is studying the use of oilfield produced water for irrigation for the first time. He says even though there is no hydraulic fracturing going on, many chemical additives are still being used. "Well drilling, cleaning out the well bore, deep scaling, these are things that anybody who is producing oil is going to be doing," he said.
Yet, he says for decades the oil companies have not been testing for all those additives.
Rodgers says that's changing: After the public started asking questions last year, he gave the oil companies an ultimatum. "We have asked and are requiring that they identify all of the chemicals that are being introduced, and that they test the produced water for those specific chemicals," he said.
He says his agency is in the process of getting the first results back. But when asked why it has taken 20 years, Rodgers demanded the camera be turned off. Then he walked out. The interview was over.
But for the questioning public, like farmer Tom Frantz, it's just the beginning.
"It's irresponsible to not want to know if the produce you are selling to the public has some toxins in it, at "any" level," he said. "The public deserves to know this kind of thing."
Wonderful Orchards, the company that grows the Halo tangerines and pistachios, sent KPIX 5 this statement:
"California farmers use a wide range of water resources, a small percentage of which is produced during oilfield operations; however, this water is highly regulated, carefully treated, tested and approved for agricultural use and is even well within safe drinking water standards. To demonstrate its quality, recent fruit and nut testing was conducted and showed absolutely no difference whatsoever regardless of the water source. Our Halos mandarins are nutritious, wholesome, and above all, safe for our consumers to enjoy."
Chevron, the biggest producer of oilfield-produced water, also sent us the following statement:
"Please be aware that we are cooperating fully with the Food Safety Panel created by the Water Board to evaluate the use of treated, produced formation water while continuing to provide the information requested by the Water Board and/or the Food Safety Panel to document the quality of the water that Chevron is providing to the Cawelo Water District. Chevron has timely provided all information requested by the Water Board for the Food Safety Panel."
Seth Shonkoff is with PSE Healthy Energy
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