By Rory Carroll
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - California environmental groups filed a lawsuit on Thursday that seeks to halt oil industry injections of drilling wastewater into nearly 500 wells, a practice they say threatens fresh water supplies and is particularly critical in light of a prolonged drought.
The lawsuit was filed in state court against California's oil drilling regulator, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Sierra Club and Earthjustice.
Oil drilling in California produces far more water than oil, most of which is not suitable for drinking. The wastewater is typically injected back underground.
The lawsuit also wants the DOGGR to stop allowing oil companies to pump steam into about 2,000 additional wells injecting into aquifers, which they say are protected under federal law. Oil drilling companies inject water and steam to increase the flow of oil to the surface.
“It’s inexcusable that state regulators are letting oil companies dump toxic waste fluid into California’s water supplies during the worst drought in 1,200 years,” said Hollin Kretzmann, a staff attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity. “The oil industry’s illegal injections need to stop immediately to protect our groundwater.”
DOGGR has ordered the shutdown of a total of 23 wells where wastewater was being injected into aquifers protected by federal law and is conducting a review of additional wells to determine their impact on water supplies.
An emergency order issued by DOGGR last month spelled out a timeline for companies to stop injecting into certain wells, but allows some of them until 2017 to obtain an exemption, far too long given the high stakes, Kretzmann said.
Steven Bohlen, the state’s oil and gas supervisor, said he could not comment on the litigation, but said protecting California’s groundwater resources and public health is paramount, particularly during the drought.
“The state and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are moving aggressively and quickly to test all wells that risk harming sources of water for drinking and agriculture,” he said.
“Thus far, testing of water supply wells by the State Water Resources Control Board has revealed no contamination of water used for drinking or agricultural purposes related to underground injection by the oil and gas industry. We intend to keep it that way,” he said.
Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, said the state and the EPA have a comprehensive work plan and aggressive schedule for review of the wells.
"This lawsuit is an attempt to thwart that regulatory process," she said.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Diane Craft and Leslie Adler)