Capitol Alert

California officials review underground wells for risks

Traffic runs through the Kern River Oil Field last year. Oil was discovered at there in 1899.
Traffic runs through the Kern River Oil Field last year. Oil was discovered at there in 1899.

California officials detailed plans Tuesday to ensure that wells exposed to potentially harmful oil-field wastewater comply with federal drinking water standards.

John Laird, state secretary for natural resources, told a Senate hearing that the state Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources is reviewing underground injection wells while prioritizing those that pose the greatest risk of contaminating aquifers used for water supplies.

Nearly two dozen wells have been voluntarily closed or ordered shut down, and the state has secured agreements with oil producers to conduct water quality testing, Laird said. He discussed the state’s comprehensive plan, which sets a 2017 deadline for compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act.

“These milestones are public, the responses to them will be public, and you in the public will be able to track the progress of that process,” Laird said.

Still, he acknowledged decades of inconsistency within the division. “I wish, as budget chair when I was in the Legislature, I’d done more oversight,” he said.

The head of the California Environmental Protection Agency, Matthew Rodriquez, said in a recent letter that the division and the federal EPA may not have followed regulatory procedures in the early 1980s when they agreed to exempt 11 aquifers. The division also allowed injection in zones that were not exempted, he wrote.

On Tuesday, lawmakers including Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, lamented the division’s poor history of record-keeping along with its “very slow and sloppy” oversight as reasons to be skeptical about the proposed changes.

Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, suggested officials begin to address the root causes of the problems.

“You don’t have the chance to change it overnight,” Laird responded, “even though you have a commitment to.”

Call Christopher Cadelago, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5538. Follow him on Twitter @ccadelago.