Pollution Law Watch

If You Don’t Look for Water Contamination, You Won’t Find It.

Posted in Contamination, Water

The LA Times and environmental advocacy group, Water Defense, recently combined to show what a sham so-called “environmental testing” can sometimes be, because it creates the illusion of protection for the people, when in truth there is very little, or maybe even none at all.

In its May 2, 2015 story, The LA Times (and author Julie Cart) documented how, for two decades now, food crops in the Central Valley of California have been irrigated (sprayed) daily with millions of gallons of recycled water that had been used to help big oil companies try to discover crude oil.   In a nutshell, waste water from oil fields is being used to grow food that winds up on our plates. 1

The oil companies and consortium of crop-growers think it’s a great deal.  The oil companies get paid (by the growers) to dispose of waste water that they otherwise would have had to pay a lot of money to get rid of.  The growers save lots of money; they get this “water” from the oil companies for about half of what they pay for water from other sources.

But this “water” is being sprayed on our food. We should care not so much about whether this practice is healthy for the bottom lines of oil companies and corporate growers, but whether it is healthy for the people who eat the food.

So the question is:  “Is this half-priced oil waste water safe to spray on the crops?”

When you dig deep, as The LA times did, you find that the answer to this question is a resounding, “We have no idea.”

The story starts off sounding good.  Both the growers and oil companies will tell you (as they told The LA times) that this water is treated and “tested” before it’s sprayed on the crops.  The growers will say that they test for pests and disease. Testing beyond that, they say, is up to the oil companies, For their part, the oil companies will say that they treat and test the water for whatever chemicals the government requires them to treat and test for.

But is anyone testing specifically for the chemicals used by the oil companies in oil production?  Because we obviously also want to know if those chemicals are getting onto, or, worse, into, our food when it is growing out in the Central Valley fields.

Sadly, it turns out that there is no testing for those chemicals.  Because the oil companies will not say what those chemicals are, no one tests to see if they are in the water sprayed on the crops.2

“You can’t find what you don’t look for”, The LA times quoted one scientist to say. 1

And so here we see the sham:  the oil companies and growers create the illusion of safety and responsibility by claiming to do all “required” testing…..even while they know that the “required” testing is grossly inadequate, because it does not test for the presence of dangerous oil field chemicals.

Until Water Defense’s work, the oil companies and growers had been able to say that there is “no proof” that oil field chemicals are in the water used to spray the crops.  But now there is proof.  Over the last two years, and throughout an 8-mile long canal over which oil field waste water travels before being sprayed on the crops, Water Defense actually tested some of this water. And it found compounds that are toxic to humans, including acetone and methylene chloride—which are used as industrial solvents and to soften thick crude oil—as well as oil.  Methylene chloride is a potential human carcinogen.

Not surprisingly, the growers and at least one oil company are crying foul over Water Defense’s work.  They say that Water Defense’s testing method was improper; the oil company says that it doesn’t use acetone and methylene chloride in its processes.  Good luck to them: Scott Smith, Water Defense’s chief scientist, has a resume that says he knows what he’s doing.  He’s consulted for EPA and other government agencies on more than 50 oil spills, and spent two years studying the oil waste water used in the Central Valley.

Hopefully, very soon, the sham will end.  Hopefully, testing of oil field waste water sprayed on crops will very soon include testing for dangerous oil field chemicals.  And then, hopefully, the people who eat the food sprayed with oil field chemicals can finally know what they have really been eating all these years, and decide whether they want to keep doing it.

1 LA Times – “Central Valley’s Growing Concern: Crops Raise With Oil Field Water” (May 2, 2015)

2 In California, a new law will require such disclosure soon; but, for the last 20 years, these chemicals have remained a secret. As a result, those who for 20 years have eaten Central Valley food sprayed with oil field waste water may have also been consuming undisclosed oil field chemicals, because no test revealed whether the chemicals were in the food.