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LOIS HENRY: We don’t need more misinformation about fracking

Sometimes the only appropriate response I can muster to the idiocy that goes on in Sacramento is “Oh, brother.” We are a family newspaper, after all.

This time, it’s a bill by Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D- Burbank, that would require all food irrigated with oilfield water to be labeled, “Grown using recycled or treated hydraulic fracturing oilfield wastewater.”

In other words — FRACK FRUIT.

This all stems from that atrocious May 3 Los Angeles Times article about Cawelo Water District’s use of oilfield water from Chevron and California Resources Corporation (CRC), which shows why bad reporting can be so damaging. But we’ll come back to that.

A former colleague and close observer of the Legislature didn’t think Gatto’s bill would get far. He said the bill, ABx2-14, looks like a “press release” bill intended to grab a few headlines.

Indeed, Gatto may be using the “F” word to burnish his “progressive” creds as he’s about to be termed out and is mulling a run for state Senate against a slew of other Dems.

Hopefully it is just political huff and puff. But in case Gatto is serious, let’s dissect the baby, so to speak.

ABx2-14 (weird number because of the special session) is supposedly aimed at produce grown with water from oil wells that have been hydraulically fractured.

Couple things.

First, no one is irrigating crops with frack fluid. That is patently illegal.

Gatto told me there had been instances of crops irrigated with frack fluid in San Joaquin County but the state Regional Water Quality Control Board could not confirm that. When I asked Gatto for the report he said detailed those instances, he could not produce it.

Anyhow, fracking flowback fluid is required to be disposed of in a very specific manner, typically by injecting it deep underground.

Second, this bill defines oil wastewater as any water from oil and gas activities “that contains well stimulation treatment additives and fluids.”

It doesn’t define “additives and fluids.” And it doesn’t define well stimulation, which can run the gamut from water flooding to fracking.

That vagueness means any food grown with oilfield produced water would have to be labeled FRACK FRUIT (my term).

The only place food is being irrigated with oilfield produced water is Kern County in the Cawelo Water District. That could change as the Regional Water Quality Control Board is receiving more requests by oil and ag operators to use produced water for irrigation.

Cawelo has operated its program for more than 20 years. It uses about 640,000 barrels of water a day (27 million gallons or 82 acre-feet) from Chevron’s Kern River Field and CRC’s Kern Front Field. Wells in those fields are not fracked, by the way.

That water is first treated at the oilfields to remove as much oil and impurities as possible and then blended with fresh water. The program supplies irrigation water to about 90 farmers growing almonds, citrus and grapes over 34,000 acres.

The water has always been tested per Regional Water Quality Control Board standards and has always met those standards.

Yet, an LA Times story used questionable testing from a water activist to imply the water might not be safe. And perhaps the food grown with that water wasn’t safe either.

The paper had to correct a number of inaccuracies in the story, including the water activist’s chemical concentrations. Later testing by the Regional Board showed even those corrected concentrations were far higher than what it found. At least one chemical alleged by the activist to be in the water wasn’t found at all.

Eventually, the Times had to report the truth — the Chevron/Cawelo water is safe.

But the damage was done. Countless other publications ran with the erroneous information. Thanks much.

The question of whether fruit can be impacted by chemicals in irrigation water is now being studied by a technical group assembled by the Regional Board.

That group is still in the data collection phase, but prevailing expertise suggests that, no, fruit is not impacted.

In related news, Scientists see fracking as cause of earthquakes in heartland.

“Generally, my understanding is the level of contaminants is so minimal (in the Cawelo water) that it’s probably eaten up in a matter of days, if not hours, by the native microbial communities in that crop root zone. And from what I know of root physiology, benzene and acetone and related stuff, no way that’s going to pass into the root cortex,” said Blake Sanden, an irrigation and soils farm advisor with the University of California, Davis. “But to say that unequivocally, we need to do a study.”

Sanden is not working with the Regional Board’s technical team, but he has teamed up with Cal State Bakersfield Geology Professor Rob Negrini to apply for a USDA grant to study that same question.

When I mentioned these pending studies to Gatto, he seemed not to know about them. He had not contacted the Regional Board, nor Cawelo, nor Chevron prior to writing AB2x-14.

“We don’t always reach out to certain groups at the outset because we know what they’re going to say,” he told me. “But we’re always open-minded.”

Yes, I can see that.

I also pointed out that the Cawelo water doesn’t contain frack fluid. The wells aren’t fracked so this is produced water, which is very different.

“Well, fracking is a shorthand term,” he said.

No, it is not. It is a term that relates to a very specific form of oil extraction and byproducts. Sheesh.

Moving on. The intent of his bill, he said, is simply to give consumers information.

“We believe this is a common-sense approach and the available scientific data indicates this water is not something that should be used to irrigate certain food products and in the long term is not good for the soil.”

What scientific data? He couldn’t provide it. How, then, do you know this water creates fruit that may be harmful to humans, I asked?

That’s not the right question, he said.

“The right question is ‘Do humans have the right to know what they’re putting in their bodies?'”

Of course.

But there’s no indication we’re putting anything except wholesome fruit in our bodies if we eat fruit irrigated with oilfield produced water. Or reclaimed sewer water. Or water that’s high in salts, arsenic or nitrates.

Because all available information indicates plants aren’t sucking up toxic chemicals and bacteria and concentrating them in edible fruits and leaves. (This was looked at years ago during the E. coli/spinach scare. There was no evidence of root uptake then either.)

If Gatto were really interested in what’s in the fruit, he’d wait for the studies.

But that’s not what he’s interested in. He wants to get on the frack wagon.

It’s clear from his bill and my discussion with him that Gatto has no clue about oilfield operations, nor the differences between produced water and flowback fluid. He has no clue about what’s in water currently being used to irrigate crops nor how that water affects those crops.

And yet, he proposes to “give consumers more information.”

What he’s really proposing is to scare people with misinformation.

Thanks, Mr. Gatto, but we already have the Internet for that.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com.

Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.


This article was from The Bakersfield Californian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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