“The potential impact to our food supply and water supply is enormous,” says attorney Patricia Oliver.
“Mike Hopkins’ cherry orchard in northwest Bakersfield died in 2012 - he lost 2,232 cherry trees,” says Oliver, who co-leads the special litigation team at R. Rex Parris. “He got the water tested from a reputable lab that showed the chloride levels exceeded those allowed by the EPA. Chloride is caused either by de-icing of roads or by hydraulic fracking. There are no icy roads in Bakersfield.”
Oliver says that Hopkins first went to the Water Board with his contaminated water and they sent him to the DOGGR. (To obtain a permit under the Safe Drinking Water Act, oil companies must provide geological and engineering studies. These studies are reviewed by the DOGGR, which is responsible for issuing permits under the Safe Drinking Water Act.) Hopkins was told that the deputy of the district would call back. You know how that goes...Hopkins eventually called the deputy (Burt Ellison) who told him the chloride was not caused by oil activity. Next up, Hopkins met with a state gas and oil supervisor and got the same answer: nothing. It was starting to sound like Bakersfield-Gate...
The RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations) lawsuit claims that the defendants began to “conspire” back in 2010. Governor Jerry Brown in November of 2011 fired DOGGR Elena Miller, his top oil industry regulator, because she insisted on engineering and geologic studies before issuing permits for wastewater injection wells. Avoiding the costs of such studies and in turn more expensive disposal methods would mean big savings to the oil industry in Kern County. Miller also required testing at drilling sites to prove that waste would be contained. The governor replaced Miller with Timothy Kustic, who said the division would develop a “more flexible approach” to the permitting process, relying on historical records from worksites rather than new testing, according to a report from the California Department of Conservation. “As a result, permit approvals went from the typical 50 permits a year to 1,575 permits in 2012 alone,” noted attorney Rex Parris.
At this point Hopkins retained legal counsel. Oliver got involved because she specializes in complex litigation and is able to think outside the box, which clearly this case would need. She explains that there are two major issues at stake.
“The first issue relates directly to the water in this valley that is used for drinking water,” says Oliver. “The second issue is that this water is used to irrigate crops. The whole valley feeds 25 percent of the nation, but the state of California never conducted studies to determine how much water contamination is too much.” Right now, continual wastewater injections in the valley have the potential to cause irreparable damage.
“We have been investigating the chloride contamination since Hopkins approached attorney George Martin, our co-counsel back in December 2012. We discovered last summer that Occidental and Chevron Oil companies were directly injecting contaminated water into the aquifer. According to the lawsuit, the oil companies were injecting contaminated water directly into the aquifer, into areas between 300 to 800 feet below ground, which is directly at the levels of many farmers’ aquifers.
“We then tried to get records to show that the aquifers were exempt and this past January, the state finally admitted that they were indeed allowing direct injection into the aquifer,” says Oliver. Interestingly, Oliver and her team were about to file a lawsuit against the government for failure to provide information and very shortly thereafter (January 2015), the state admitted that they were indeed allowing direct injection into the aquifer. “They were definitely aware that a lawsuit was about to be filed against them,” quips Oliver.
Hopkins has 3,636 almond trees that won’t survive if this practice continues. His well is literally across the street from the aquifer believed to be causing the contamination. But Hopkins is just one of millions of people that could be affected if this continues. At this point the lawsuit is dependent upon what the oil companies and the state decide to do.
The lawsuit is seeking damages in the tens of millions, which under the RICO statute could be tripled if they prevail in Los Angeles federal court. The case number is 2:2015cv04149. For more information, see a copy of the complaint.
“It is in the public interest that this complaint should not spend years dragging through the legal channels,” says Oliver. Interestingly, Mark Nechodom, one of the Defendants and Director of the California Department of Conservation - he wrote the e-mail welcoming another defendant as an “unindicted co-conspirator” -
resigned yesterday. Stay tuned for more about California’s Water-Gate...
READ MORE HYDRAULIC FRACTURING LEGAL NEWS
Photo (pictured above): Aquifer across the street from dead cherry orchard