Environmentalists raised alarm bells Friday over controversial use of oilfield wastewater for crops in California.
"It's an experiment that the state of California and the oil industry performs without consumer consent," Madeline Stano of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment told AFP.
The “experiment” is the growing practice of oil companies selling water to farmers. When crude oil is extracted, it's often mixed with water, which needs to be separated out. Generally, the wastewater is little more than a nuisance for companies, but in California some oilfields have found a way to turn a buck from the unwanted water. Although the practice has reportedly been taking place in some parts of California for decades, it has mushroomed in recent months as farmers struggle with one of the state's worst droughts in history.
The sale of wastewater has been defended as a “win-win” for farmers and oil companies by Chevron spokesperson Abby Auffant.
“It's hard for the oil industry to get rid of,” she said. Chevron is one of the main companies promoting the sale of wastewater.
However, environmentalists argue that despite mandatory state quality testing, the wastewater could pose a health risk to consumers of Californian crops. Traditionally, government authorities have only required irrigation water be tested for naturally occurring toxins like arsenic and salts. California is currently moving to a system that would require oilfield wastewater be tested for harmful chemicals used by the oil industry, though critics say there is already evidence the water is packed with toxins.
"In Chevron's own report we found benzine and acetone, which are carcinogenics,” Spanno told AFP.
In a statement recently issued to the LA Times, Chevron stated they take all “necessary steps to ensure the protection of our water resources,” and added it was commissioning independent testing.
Yet, environmental group Water Defense’s own independent tests revealed high levels of toxic compounds acetone and methylene chloride, along with crude oil in water sold to farmers by oil companies.
Scott Smith, chief scientist for Water Defense, told ThinkProgress these toxins flow into irrigation canals, and could pose a public health risk.
In one sample, Smith said he found levels of an industrial solvent at concentrations comparable to levels of the same chemical he found while testing water in the Arkansas river after the 2013 ExxonMobil tar sands pipeline spill.
“If you were a gas station and were spilling these kinds of chemicals into the water, you would be shut down and fined,” he said.
However, even if irrigation water is contaminated, it's unclear whether it could affect crops, according to Blake Sanden, an agriculture extension agent and irrigation water expert from the University of California Davis.
Speaking to the LA Times, he said oil from irrigation water probably wouldn't find its way into almonds, but stated, “Can they make it into the flesh of an orange or grape? It's possible”.
“A lot of this stuff has not been studied in a field setting or for commercial food uptake,” he said.
One thing that is clear is that the water is often contaminated, Sanders said. “Everyone smells the petrochemicals in the irrigation water,” he said, referring to the use of wastewater in California's Cawelo district, where Chevron sells water.
"When I talk to growers, and they smell the oil field crap in that water, they assume the soil is taking care of this," he said.