Contaminated crops?

Activists call attention to oil wastewater irrigation practices

Volunteer signature-gatherers Mary Kay Benson (left) and Milo Sebanc are part of an effort to protect food crops.

Volunteer signature-gatherers Mary Kay Benson (left) and Milo Sebanc are part of an effort to protect food crops.

Photo by Daniel Taylor

Sign the petition:
Visit to ask the governor to stop watering California crops with oil wastewater.
story and photo by

Following the success of Measure E, the initiative to ban hydraulic fracturing in Butte County that more than 70 percent of voters supported in the June 7 primary election, local anti-fracking activists are setting their sights on a lesser known, but similarly troubling environmental issue: the use of wastewater from oil extraction processes to irrigate California crops.

“This is an area that people are not educated about,” said Mary Kay Benson, a volunteer with Protect California Food, an affiliate of Californians Against Fracking. “Fracking has become pretty widely known now, and people take a stance one way or the other. But as far as our poisoned food, they don’t know about it.”

Benson and fellow volunteer Milo Sebanc were stationed outside of the Chico branch of the Butte County Library on Saturday morning (July 16) collecting signatures for a petition calling on Gov. Jerry Brown and state water officials to prohibit the use of oil wastewater for irrigation. Chico was one of 11 California cities in which volunteers were gathering signatures. According to the, the petition has already been signed by more than 276,000 people online.

Recycled oil well wastewater has been used by farmers in California with the approval of state officials for more than two decades, but the practice is becoming more widespread. A 2015 story in Mother Jones reported that as much as half of 45,000 acres of cropland in Kern County was irrigated using recycled oil wastewater provided by Chevron and other oil companies in 2014, up 35 percent from pre-2011 levels.

An expert panel assembled by the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board has called for an expansion of the oil wastewater recycling program due to drought-related water shortages. Oil companies, facing increasing scrutiny of wastewater disposal and looking to a new source of potential revenue, are happy to oblige. According to Bloomberg, the state’s largest oil producer, California Resources Corp., announced last year that it planned to quadruple the amount of wastewater it sells to California farmers.

The use of this water to grow food should be a concern for all Californians, Benson said.

“It affects us all because California grows about two-thirds of the produce and the nuts that the whole country consumes. So what’s happening in Kern County affects the food that we all eat, in the whole country, since California is supplying most of the food,” she explained.

A fact sheet distributed by Protect California Food cites Halos mandarins, Sutter Home wines and Sunview, growers of several crops including raisins, as being among the more recognizable brand names that have been documented as using oil wastewater irrigation for fruit crops. Although proponents of the practice claim it is safe, David Braun, an Oakland-based organizer with Rootskeeper and Californians Against Fracking who helped organize the Protect California Food petition, said by telephone that the safety of oil wastewater irrigation is still being determined using California consumers as test subjects.

“The industry’s position is that this is safe,” Braun said. “Our feelings are: Prove it. We don’t feel that children and people should be lab rats in an oil and gas water experiment. The best-case scenario here is that people’s lives aren’t threatened, and we’re not exposed to potentially cancer-causing chemicals like benzene. So we would like to see this practice stopped until it’s absolutely demonstrable that this practice is safe.”

What chemicals may or may not be present in the oil field wastewater isn’t entirely clear. This is due, said Braun, to the wastewater being tested for the presence of only a small number of potentially toxic chemicals. More alarming, he continued, is that the chemicals that are present in the wastewater aren’t being filtered from the water before it’s used.

“There’s not actually any sort of filtration set up to remove the contaminants,” Braun said. “They have separators set up to skim the oil and separate the water. They have these walnut husks to run the water through because the oil will adhere to the walnut husks. But they’re using hundreds of chemicals in oil field operations, for various purposes, that they currently are not testing for.”

The signatures gathered in Chico and elsewhere will be sent to the governor and the State Water Resources Control Board to encourage them to stop the use of oil wastewater for irrigation, or at least the very least do more comprehensive, unbiased testing.

“We feel that this really needs to be looked at and evaluated by independent science,” Braun said. “Until we have that science, and those studies and that data analysis happening, we will not be silent. We will continue to collect petitions. We will continue to highlight this for the general public so that they know that this dirty little secret of this industry and these water districts is going on.”

According to Benson, the governor and state water officials have so far been slow to react to growing concern over oil wastewater irrigation.

“They’re not really taking it very seriously because Gov. Brown has accepted a couple of million dollars from the oil and gas industry,” Benson said. “In spite of calling himself the green governor, this pretty much disqualifies him.”