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Advocacy groups call for a ban on recycled oil field wastewater to irrigate crops

Advocacy groups call for a ban on recycled oil field wastewater to irrigate crops
Oil field wastewater in a treatment pond near Bakersfield operated by the Cawelo Water District. Treated oil field water serves 90 farms in Kern County. (Brian Van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Organizers of a petition drive to ban the practice of irrigating crops with recycled oil field wastewater will be pitching their cause on Saturday morning to customers at markets in nine cities across the state, including a Ralph's in Los Angeles.

The effort led by a coalition of nonprofit environmental groups called Protect California Food is asking Gov. Jerry Brown and the State Water Resources Board to halt use of the recycled water until it is screened for all of the chemicals used in oil production.

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Some members dressed as tangerines will show up at a Ralphs on Olympic Blvd. to try to "raise consumer awareness of what risks may be present in the products they are buying," said Walker Foley, a petition supporter.  Use of the water, he said,  "is not an acceptable practice without an independent, comprehensive scientific analysis."

As California's drought enters its fifth year, more Central California companies and irrigation districts are seeking permits to sell and use recycled oil field water, which costs less than clean water.

But heightened interest has raised concerns over the adequacy of current safety measures to prevent food from being contaminated by toxic substances.

Oil giant Chevron Corp. sells about 21 million gallons of treated oil field wastewater per day to the Cawelo Water District, which provides water to 90 Kern County farmers. Before releasing it to the district, Chevron treats the wastewater in settling ponds and other processes designed to remove contaminants.

Cameron Van Ast, a spokesman for Chevron, said the recycled water is clean and complies with state regulations. "Water reuse programs like ours," he said, "are an important conservation strategy and provide a significant and important benefit to local farmers and California."

Critics argue that government authorities have only required limited testing of recycled irrigation water, checking for naturally occurring toxins such as salts and arsenic. However, they haven't screened for the range of chemicals used in modern oil production.

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