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California Farm Use Of Oilfield Wastewater Prompts Food-Safety Inquiry

BAKERSFIELD (KPIX) -- Some popular California-grown fruits and nuts are irrigated with wastewater from oilfields. No one has been checking if the practice is actually safe -- until now.

Central Valley Orchards Irrigated With Oilfield Wastewater

"It's a very good resource to have, especially in a drought," said David Ansolabehere, general manager of the Cawelo Water District near Bakersfield. Ansolabehere says he is proud of the unique irrigation program his water district runs in the San Joaquin Valley.

He buys wastewater from neighboring oilfields and sells it to farmers for a fraction of the price of water from the California aqueduct.

"It has enabled our farmers to continue farming when some of the other farming companies have had very reduced supplies," said Ansolabehere.

Using oilfield wastewater for irrigation is an unregulated practice in California that has has been going for years. After the public started asking questions last year, regional water officials formed a food safety panel to look at potential health impacts.

At a recent meeting, a consultant for the water district reported results of tests that were recently conducted on this so-called "produced water."

"We believe that the water is safe for irrigation of crops," the consultant said.

Tests of grapes and nuts also came back clean but there are skeptics like Bill Allayaud.

"These were really quick and dirty studies," he said.

A policy director for the environmental working group, Allayaud has become a regular at the new food-safety meetings.

"They did a single day sample of water and say 'it looks safe to us.' You need to do long-term sampling," Allayaud said.

Allayaud says the tests did not look for many chemical additives that oil companies use for routine operations.

"As the science gets better, we realize that exquisitely small amounts may affect our hormonal systems and fetuses, so it's a big concern," Allayaud said.

Oil companies are not required to disclose those chemical additives but the ones involved in the irrigation project recently did so voluntarily at the request of the regional water board.

The additives make for a long list. KPIX 5 obtained copies of the material safety data sheets.

There was no information on how much or how often the products are used. But we found many of the ingredients, such as ethylene glycol, cumene, methanol, ethylbenzene and naphthalene are on California's Prop 65 list of chemicals known to cause cancer.

We also noticed a lot of missing information. Some chemical mixtures are kept as trade secrets and we asked Chevron's Abby Auffant about that. Chevron is the biggest producer of oilfield water.

"We have complied with every request that we have received," said Auffant. She says Chevron is in compliance with its existing permit issued by the water board.

We asked her if the practice of using oilfield wastewater for irrigation of crops is really a cheap way for Chevron to get rid of its wastewater.

Re-injection into the ground costs money, while selling it to the water district brings in at least some revenue.

Auffant told us: "Cost is not a component of this relationship. It's a valuable use, a beneficial reuse for agriculture in our community and it has been a successful relationship from the standpoint of the oil fields' interaction with agriculture for over 20 years."

We've confirmed at least two water districts so far are buying the oilfield waste water for irrigation, and a third has expressed interest in using it too. The Environmental Working Group and other environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on new applications until we know for sure that the practice is safe.

As we previously reported, Halo tangerines are also grown with oilfield wastewater but they have not been tested yet.

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