Who’s behind the chemical-laden water pits in Kern County?

Pits containing production water from oil wells in Kern County.
(Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

One thing is clear for officials who discovered hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits in Kern County: They have years of work ahead of them to determine who put the chemical-laden water there and how to remediate any potential environmental damage.

The Central Valley Water Quality Control Board expects Friday to complete its inspections of hundreds of unlined pits filled with wastewater forced out of the ground during oil operations, including fracking. They are getting a fix on just how many are operating without permits and who is operating them, water officials said.

Inspections so far have revealed the existence of more than 300 previously unidentified waste sites. The water board’s review has also found that more than one-third of the region’s active disposal pits are operating without permission. The discoveries raise new questions about water quality in the region, which is home to more than 80% of the state’s oil production.


The water board has formulated a plan to address the problem, beginning with identifying pits that are closer to good quality groundwater sources to ensure that toxic substances from the pits haven’t seeped into usable water. That work is expected to continue until the end of the year and expand throughout the region.

Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the water board’s Fresno office, has said the agency expects to issue as many as 200 enforcement orders to pit operators.

As for enforcement, the board has a sliding scale of options, including notices that require operators to obtain permits, clean up pits or provide extensive information about them. The agency can issue fines and, as a last resort, shut down facilities that fail to comply.

The local water board says it’s prepared for pushback on their enforcement actions. The board’s work plan says, “It is anticipated that many of these orders will be controversial and petitioned by dischargers.”

Officials estimate the enforcement orders will continue through the end of 2016.

Then they will deal with the hundreds of idle or abandoned pits across the county that likely will require some remediation.

MORE: Hundreds of illicit oil wastewater pits found in Kern County


Twitter: @julie_cart