By Tom Frantz
Three significant events took place recently that should improve the quality of life for residents in the San Joaquin Valley.
First, the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ) successfully requested an audit from the California Air Resources Board (CARB) of emission reduction credits that are held in a bank operated by the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. This has been brought up in the past, but this time the CARB agreed.
These credits allow new sources of air pollution to be established without mitigation. An expanding oil field operation, for example, can simply surrender old credits equal to their new pollution. The problem was that a lot of these credits are more than 40 years old and impossible to trace back to their origin. This audit should sort out the valid from the invalid credits. This means that new sources of pollution might actually have to reduce their emissions to a less than significant level.
Second, there is now a strong incentive program at the air district designed to end the ugly and polluting practice of open burning when an orchard is removed. The alternative is to grind up the trees and incorporate the wood into the soil before a new set of trees are planted.
The air district was not at all interested in promoting this practice called whole orchard recycling (WOR). But UC Davis agricultural scientists showed that the benefits of recycled nutrients and increased soil carbon were significant enough to pay back the farmer several times the added costs.
So, the CVAQ, with a local Sierra Club and Faith in the Valley, went directly to the Almond Board of California. They sent a letter asking it to encourage the air district to promote and subsidize this practice of WOR. Within two months, the air district established a new incentive program paying farmers part of the cost of grinding and spreading their old trees. There is no doubt the practice will soon spread throughout the Valley and we should soon see an end to most open burning.
Finally, there was the recent culmination of a multiyear process that will lead to safer and more protected drinking water. Oil production creates two major environmental issues. One is the copious amount of air pollution associated with its energy intensive operations. The other is the massive amount of produced wastewater. How that water is disposed of is a matter of serious concern.
Most of the oil is removed, but many dangerous chemicals remain in this wastewater. Common contaminants are hydrocarbons, chlorides, sulphates, boron, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes and radium isotopes. No one wants to see this stuff migrating into groundwater or rivers and streams that are used by others for beneficial purposes.
Several years back, environmental watchdogs in Kern County became aware of a site in the foothills east of Bakersfield where oil production wastewater was being sprayed on about 100 acres of a dry hillside. This was a couple of hundred yards above a creek that runs directly into the Kern River about a mile downstream.
Called the Race Track Hill Facility, it was run by a nonprofit called Valley Water Management Company (VWMC). Wastewater was pumped up to ponds at the top of the hill and then the water ran by gravity to dozens of sprinkler heads scattered around the lower elevations. The hillside was incongruously green throughout the year as it was covered in salt tolerant bushes and grasses.
(See part of the story of the Race Track Hill Facility in the 2015 film Crude Beyond Belief, which was sponsored and produced by Fresnans Against Fracking and WILPF.)
This spray field had been in operation for more than 50 years, and no one was paying attention. People were shocked that this dangerous practice could be allowed. In early 2015, a request was made to have the Regional Water Board take a look at the site.
The Regional Water Board staff were shocked as well and recommended to their board a cease-and-desist order (CDO) in July 2015. This should have gone into effect in early 2016. Unfortunately, members of the Regional Water Control Board met secretly with Valley Water Management and decided to give them until Jan. 1, 2018, to comply with the CDO.
Three environmental groups, the Clean Water Fund, the Center for Environmental Health and the Association of Irritated Residents, filed suit against VWMC under Proposition 65, a law designed to prevent contamination of drinking water. Unfortunately, the judge did not want to rule against the Regional Water Board deadline.
As 2018 approached, VWMC appealed to the Water Board claiming that it could not meet the deadline. The Water Board gave them an additional 18 months to July 2019. But the coalition of environmental groups appealed to the judge and got an order with a Jan. 1, 2019, deadline.
Finally, on Jan. 3, 2019, the company reported that its discharges at the Race Track Hill Facility had ceased permanently. If it had not been for local concern five years earlier, the practice would still be on an indefinite path to a polluted water future.
It is nice to have a few victories once in a while, but nothing comes easy.
Longtime clean air advocate Tom Frantz is a retired math teacher and Kern County almond farmer. A founding member of the Central Valley Air Quality Coalition (CVAQ), he serves on its steering committee and as president of the Association of Irritated Residents. The CVAQ is a partnership of more than 70 community, medical, public health and environmental justice organizations representing thousands of residents in the San Joaquin Valley unified in their commitment to improving the health of Californians. For more information, visit www.calcleanair.org.