Wastewater from oil and gas drilling, which contains poisons and unknown chemicals, is now being used in drought-stricken areas to irrigate farm crops and to water livestock. It’s a shocking scenario that is leaving some physicians, doctors, and food activists to question what cost this is going to have on Americans’ health.
By James Spounias
One of the most underreported environmental stories in America affects us all. Wastewater from oil and gas drilling is being used to irrigate crops on farms in the bountiful Central Valley in California, which supplies 40% of America’s fruits and vegetables.
For two decades, water-scarce California has been using wastewater on its crops. The narrative is that, with California bursting at the seams in terms of population and a lack of water due supposedly to “global warming,” farmers have been forced to purchase wastewater, which is cheaper than fresh water. According to a May 2015 investigative piece in The Los Angeles Times, clean water costs about $60 an acre per foot, but gas-giant Chevron only charges $30 an acre-foot for its liquid waste.
Wastewater is “blended with fresh water and then applied to almonds, pistachios and citrus trees along with grapes, carrots, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes,” reports the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Alarmingly, a wastewater permit also allows the toxic liquid to be used as drinking water for livestock as well as for “farmed fish.”
Is wastewater safe to use?
This is not an easy question to answer, because governmental bodies have had fairly light testing requirements to issue a permit for the sale of wastewater, mandating it only be tested for a handful of contaminants. After some limited mainstream reporting on wastewater was done, governments imposed additional requirements, but not enough to satisfy reasonable safety concerns.
The EWG, in conjunction with 10 other environmental groups, wrote the California Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board: “There is no evidence to assure that long-term consumption of foods irrigated with produced water is safe. Providing such assurance would be a long-term and continuous endeavor for multiple reasons, including lack of full information regarding the chemicals used, lack of full information about the interactions of the chemicals used, and the need for long-term study. For these reasons, the existing projects must be immediately shut down and the board should not approve any additional projects.”
A few scientists quoted in The Los Angeles Times expressed concern. Black Sanden, an agricultural extension agent and irrigation water expert with UC Davis, told the Times, “When I talk to growers, and they smell the oil field crap in that water, they assume the soil is taking care of this.”
While micro-organisms in soil can naturally break down petroleum, dealing with hundreds of highly toxic, cancer-causing chemicals used to make wastewater—which are often the same as those used in fracking—is quite different, absent specific and expensive bioremediation.
Carl K. Winter at UC Davis, whose focus of study is on pesticides, explained it’s not certain that toxins will be taken up in the leaves or fruit, but “it’s difficult to say anything for sure because we don’t know what chemicals are in the water.”
Whether unidentified wastewater chemicals may block or reduce nutrient uptake or absorption by animals and humans is another unanswered concern.
Testing for all chemicals used in wastewater would seem to be a first step before even considering allowing this practice, but, of course, testing of industrial waste products would end up costing quite a bit thus making the “market” for wastewater undesirable.
Seth B.C. Shonkoff, a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley who researches the dangers of fracking, told the Times, “As an environmental health scientist, this is one of the things that keeps me up at night. You can’t find what you don’t look for.”
Shonkoff’s point sums up the safety nightmare. Testing is complicated enough, but if what is being used isn’t identified and tested for, regulations and assurances of safety are comical.
Jamie Collins, who owns Serendipity Farms in Monterey, Calif. and has been farming since 2001, wrote an op-ed piece in The Sacramento Bee on Sept. 16, calling for a ban on the use of wastewater in agriculture.
Collins wrote that Gov. Jerry Brown, who is portrayed as a left-wing environmentalist, supports the expansion of wastewater use throughout the Central Valley.
Collins stated, “By forcing more and more farmers to use oil wastewater, the state puts us in the middle of an impossible decision in a time of limited water supply: Use this waste for critical irrigation or watch our livelihoods dry up.”
Collins added: “Earlier this summer, we delivered more than 350,000 petition signatures to the capitol calling on Brown and the State Water Resources Control Board to immediately stop this practice. Oil industry representatives and the local water districts are often quick to say their evaluations show the wastewater is safe, but this ignores how inadequate that testing is. This limited testing does not look for all 450 chemicals and compounds used in oil production. And these selective procedures leave out a number of chemicals known to cause cancer.”
This is why America needs a re-boot on environmental assaults to health. This can only come from we the people, demanding an unbiased accounting of what’s in our food, air, and water and a plan to clean the environment and provide treatment solutions for those damaged. Hoping politicians will “fix” this is foolhardy.
James Spounias is the president of Carotec Inc., originally founded by renowned radio show host and alternative health expert Tom Valentine.
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