Environmentalists are outraged by a longstanding practice allowing oil companies to sell water laced with known carcinogens to California farmers. Madeline Stano of the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment told Phys.org that 80 percent of the state’s oil production and 45 percent of its farms exist side by side in Kern County. For the past 20 years, a farming cooperative called the Cawelo Water District has purchased water, which is separated from crude oil after extraction, at a significantly reduced price to irrigate crops such as almonds and grapes. The water is tested by a third-party and reports are sent to state authorities, but environmentalists raise alarm that oil companies are permitted to sell water containing benzine and acetone, both of which are known to cause cancer.
Farmers pay about $33 per acre-foot for the water sold by Chevron, Occidental Petroleum Corporation and other oil companies. It costs $1,500 to purchase the same quantity of fresh water, David Ansolabehere, who heads the Cawelo Water District, told Phys.org.
The water is filtered and then pumped to a reservoir of water from other oil companies, and then mixed with fresh water before it is used to irrigate 90 nearby farms and vineyards. Although the practice is legal, environmentalists say laws allowing these transactions should be re-evaluated in the absence of poor oversight and failure of third-party tests to adequately detect dangerous chemicals present in the water.
“It’s an experiment that the state of California and the oil industry performs without consumer consent,” Stano said. “There has been a gentleman’s agreement to promote deregulation,” she added, slamming the lack of state enforcement and “blind faith in the industries.”
Scott Smith of the Water Defense lobby group, founded by actor Mark Ruffalo, says the testing methods used are outdated, while Ansolabehere admits the produce grown with the tainted water is only evaluated for its pesticide content.
Four years into a debilitating drought, certain California farmers seem intent to use whatever water they can get their hands on–at the consumer’s potential expense.