The strawberry fieldworkers in the Oxnard Plain have been watching the trucks rumble in for years. One after another, tankers dump their loads behind the gated facility.
Afterward, a strange odor drifts over the fields — among the most fertile in the nation. But, until recently, that was about all the evidence the mostly immigrant, non-English-speaking workers could gather about the site.
The facility, less than 5 miles from the Pacific Ocean, is home to an oilfield-waste disposal well that receives fracking fluids from across Southern California.
“We’re very concerned that once again hazardous materials are being disposed of in a Latino neighborhood without the residents’ knowledge,” David Rodriguez, state vice president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said at a Department of Conservation meeting held Wednesday in Ventura. “We believe it would have been handled differently had the site been located in a more affluent community, it’s sad to say.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the fourth in a series of five held throughout the state over the last month to gather comments on what should be included in an environmental review of well stimulation, which includes hydraulic fracturing.
Fracking, as the practice is known, involves injecting a mix of high-pressure water, chemicals and sand into wells, creating fissures in the underground rock to siphon more oil out.
Under Senate Bill 4, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year, the state must impose regulations on fracking and complete an environmental impact report of the practice. Emergency regulations, requiring oil companies to notify neighbors and officials prior to fracking, went into effect Jan. 1.
Dozens of speakers at the Ventura meeting asked the Department of Conservation to study how fracking affects water, air and soil quality, and whether it can cause earthquakes. More than 200 people attended the meeting, and about a quarter of those marched the streets beforehand, calling for a ban on fracking.
“There’s not enough research about the health effects of fracking, and we just don’t know the long-term effects of these chemicals,” said protester Nancy Merrick, an Oxnard physician. “I’m worried about cancer rates.”
Oil companies have been fracking for at least sixty years in California, but until recently the practice wasn’t widely known to the public. Fracking has also been occurring off Southern California’s coast for at least the last two decades, investigative reports by the Associated Press revealed this summer.
The Western States Petroleum Association, which represents oil companies, says the practice is a safe and effective way to get more oil from existing wells.
Suzanne Noble, vice president of regional issues and chief of staff, said at Wednesday’s meeting that the petroleum association supports the environmental review but hopes the state can streamline the process in a way that “avoids further review of each individual project.”
State officials will take the thousands of comments they’ve received on the environmental review and proposed regulations and begin to hone both in the coming months. The permanent regulations must be in place by Jan. 1, 2015, and the environmental review is required to be completed six months later.
As both portions of the new law get closer to completion, the state will hold more public meetings to solicit feedback.
“This is a very, very passionate topic for many, many people in California, worldwide even,” James Pierce, an attorney with the Department of Conservation, said at Wednesday’s meeting. “So we get that, and we want to get as much information from the public as we can.”
Wednesday’s meeting drew everyone from college students to retirees. Bob Nast, a former Marine Corps helicopter pilot and Pentagon employee, said he wasn’t always an activist, but an experience living near a fracking operation in Pennsylvania turned him into one.
“We moved back to Hollywood Beach (in Oxnard), and we thought we’d put fracking in our rearview mirror, but then I look up and they’re fracking here,” he said before the meeting. “I’m just trying to get the regulators to do their jobs.”
Although the Oxnard oil-waste disposal well may be among the most utilized in California, it’s just one of a number of such wells in the state. The company that owns the well, Anterra, is in the process of creating two new disposal wells, in and near Bakersfield, according to the company’s website. Spent fracking fluids, contaminated fluids, spill material and other oil waste can be treated and then dumped into the wells, the website states.
Several protestors said they want to make sure that the waste-injection wells — not just the fracking wells themselves — are tested for environmental safety.
Dallas Rippy, a student at Ventura College, where the meeting was held, spoke out on behalf of the farm workers who pick strawberries in the fields surrounding the Oxnard waste-disposal well.
Rippy, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said talking with the farm workers in Oxnard, who are worried they may be experiencing health problems from the close proximity of the disposal well, led him to get involved in the issue. But the 18-year-old wasn’t raised to be an activist — his father worked on a fracking crew in Bakersfield in the 1980s.
“If he knew what I was up to, he probably wouldn’t let me back in the house,” he said.