It was a rocky three years for California Department of Conservation Director Mark Nechodom, who resigned last Friday without an official explanation. The department administers programs to preserve agricultural and open space lands, regulates mineral, oil and gas development activities, and evaluates geology and seismology for the state.
Nechodom, the husband of former California Secretary of State Debra Bowen, was appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in December 2011 after the dismissal of Acting Director Derek Chernow for taking a harder line on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) than his boss wanted. Chernow and Elena Miller, chief of the department’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR), were fired for their reluctance to grant expedited oil and gas drilling permits.
At the time, industry critic Dan Bacher called it “a move that reeks of political cronyism and demonstrates the inordinate power of the oil industry.” DOGGR, understaffed and underfunded, has long been accused by environmentalists of being too cozy with the industry it regulates.
The steady stream of complaints about various aspects of DOGGR’s industry oversight gushed wildly last year when the state finally got around to surveying where drillers were sinking their wells, what kind of toxic materials were being injected into the ground as part of the process, and where the stuff ended up.
After looking at 50,000 injection wells, the regulators determined that up to 2,500 might be pumping wastewater without permits or with permits they shouldn’t have. The fear is that they are ruining healthy aquifers that are suitable for drinking and irrigation. Twenty-three of the more egregious wells were shut down, while DOGGR set up a lengthy review schedule for others that critics called dangerously inadequate.
Last week, the Committee to Protect Our Agricultural Water filed a federal lawsuit against state officials, including Nechodom, Chevron, Occidental Oil and the Western States Petroleum Association, alleging a criminal conspiracy to get around the federal Safe Drinking Water Act by not properly enforcing permit requirements in the San Joaquin Valley. The group of Kern County farmers filed their civil Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) case in U.S. District Court California Central District.
The lawsuit alleges, “Every month, Occidental and Chevron directly pump 2.63 times more toxic waste water into the San Joaquin Aquifer than oil released into the Gulf during the entire BP spill.”
The lawsuit notes that after Governor Brown filed DOGGR chief Miller for not granting permits without required geological and engineering studies from drillers, her successor granted 1,575 of them, compared to 50 in a typical year. The permit process would have exposed that companies were illegally dumping wastewater into aquifers, the lawsuit claims.
Another lawsuit was filed last month by the Sierra Club and the Center for Biological Diversity in response to DOGGR’s new “emergency” drilling regulations that let the drilling continue. The new rules pretty much allow business as usual until February 2017, according to a lawsuit (pdf) and a preliminary injunction request filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the environmental groups. They were published in April after just five days of public notice, due to their emergency nature.