California farmer warns: “Don’t trust oil industry, state or courts” to protect water

by Dan Aiello, California Progress Report

Kern County almond farmer, Fred Starrh, is an unlikely darling of the anti-fracking movement in California.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is an environmentally risky oil production method of pumping under pressure large volumes of water, sand and chemicals underground to bubble to the surface heavy tar-like oil left in depleted oil wells and to reach deep deposits of oil and natural gas.

Fracking is the method oil companies seek to employ to proliferate drilling in California where the discovered Monterey Shale Deposit is estimated to contain as many as 15.4 billion barrels of crude 11,000 feet deep.

In both conventional oil drilling and fracking, as many as 8 barrels of water are used and turned into “produced” wastewater for every 1 barrel of oil produced, and that wastewater, which cannot be recycled, can be carcinogenic, radioactive and capable of contaminating local water supplies should it migrate to groundwater tables from casing failure or mishandled at the surface.

It is not widely known that oil production demands huge amounts of water and that water must be disposed of as carefully as oil must be handled to prevent environmental catastrophe. In California, water is as precious as oil and the possibility that local groundwater is in peril from an expected fracking boom worries farmers, environmentalists and water-thirsty districts throughout the Golden State.

While there have been many documented cases where contamination of groundwater has occurred with both low water volume oil production and high water volume fracking methods, (the oil industry admitting to casing failure rate averages of 6-10 percent) oil producer’s settlements with those affected have routinely included gag orders silencing would-be whistleblowers who might warn the public of the dangers of fracking from New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado and California.

Non-disclosure agreements have allowed oil and gas lobbyists to claim groundwater in California is safe from oil production practices. At a recent hearing before the California Assembly’s Natural Resources committee in Sacramento, one Western States Petroleum lobbyist made the bold claim there has never been any contamination of groundwater from oil drilling or fracking in California. Ever.

But one Central Valley Almond Grower, Fred Starrh, never received the industry’s hush money. And according to Starrh, his 6,000-acre family farm has been devastated by the contamination of its groundwater from one Shell/Mobil joint operation of lower water volume traditional oil production after a corporate decision not to line holding ponds and the subsequent decades-long failure of the state’s Water Quality and Division of Oil Gas and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) inspectors to stop the violation, allowed produced wastewater to migrate into local groundwater supplies for more than three decades, rendering the precious resource unusable for man or vegetation.

The Starrh family farm’s wells were contaminated by relatively low amounts of produced wastewater over many years. A higher volume water use, such as that used in fracking wells, would potentially have created far greater devastation far more quickly.

Starrh v. Aera, Mobil and Shell

Fred Starrh would be offended should anyone mistake him for an environmentalist and his conservative pedigree is no more in dispute than his knowledge of the Central Valley’s long agricultural heritage.

He has farmed this valley for 66 years and can easily recall what farming the Central Valley was like before the State’s massive aqueduct project began conveying Northern water south to a parched Kern County.

With what seems an encyclopedic memory, Starrh provided answers to random questions about the 1980 cotton yield in Firebaugh and the number of acres under cultivation for Alfalfa in Avenal. And he unhappily recited the number of acre-feet of water released from the San Luis Reservoir this year, part of a court-imposed effort to try and save endangered native species in California’s largest estuary, the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, from extinction.

“Compared to what the environmentalists allowed to run out to the ocean, 700,000 acre feet last spring,” I’m not worried about fracking, Starrh told CPR.

It would be a fair guess to suggest Starrh does not suffer Sacramento Delta conservationists and environmentalists gladly. Of the endangered species, Starrh implied the loss of the species was trivial, the endangered Central Valley Salmon and Delta Smelt were referred to as trivial, “piss-ant little fish,” if a choice must be made between stopping the central valley from growing the food that feeds an unfettered world population and saving Northern California native species.

In fact, when Fred Starrh began farming the world population was just over 2.5 billion. But with no small amount of credit due to GOP-supported abstinence education programs replacing third world clinical contraceptive efforts – the human population will surpass 7 billion in 2013, with more dire record forecasts ahead. Starrh makes a valid point about the need for the Central Valley, known as the world’s bread basket, to produce ever greater yields.

But despite Starrh’s opposing opinions on environmental concerns, his exposure of oil industry practices and attitudes learned after his farm’s groundwater became polluted by oil operations is well known and often cited for its contradictory evidence of the industry’s pro-fracking claims.

Indeed, politics has once more made for strange bedfellows. Even with his mixed bag of opinions regarding the environment, Fred Starrh’s “Agriculture versus Oil Companies” legal crusade, which has continued for more than a decade, includes a legal victory despite the Kern County trial location and the concerted efforts of a regiment of the best lawyers oil money could buy.

Starrh’s victory was significant as a first sign that tolerance of oil production practices – even in oil country – has its limits. More importantly, Fred Starrh is one of the few the oil industry did not settle with out of court, a common practice to silence those harmed by drilling from warming the public. In other words Fred Starrh can talk about what happened to his family farm, and that makes him a very important asset to anyone going up against a powerful industry.

Starrh, however, does not see the monetary award of $8.5 million as a victory for him, but instead one for the oil industry.

In 2001, Starrh filed suit against Aera Oil, a California satellite LLC for out-of-state Shell and Mobil Corporations for what Starrh describes as a Shell and Mobil executive decision to ignore the California water quality regulations in place for decades to line all oil well ponds for “produced” wastewater in order to reduce production costs by five cents a barrel.

With full knowledge the produced wastewater pumped into the Aera surface holding ponds had a 100 percent chance of migrating down to the groundwater under the Starrh family farm 3.5 miles away – contaminating the water supply with radiation and levels of contamination for chemicals and minerals like Boron that would render the water unsafe to drink and deadly to most agricultural crops – Aera, Shell and Mobil executives, according to evidence and testimony produced in the Starrh v. Aera trial, chose a business calculation for “Net Present Value” of the operation – in flagrant disregard of California regulations – to contaminate the groundwater in this part of Kern County for possibly 100 years or more.

It wasn’t personal, according to Mobil and Shell executives. It was business. But to the Starrh family it was more than personal, it was an outright assault on a way of life for Fred Starrh, his wife, two sons and two daughters, all of whom make their living growing almonds and pistachios on land they’ve farmed since 1973.

“The oil companies contaminated our groundwater and it’s still polluted,” Starrh says. “We’ve got pretty high boron levels, 50 parts per million to 100 parts per million. Most plants can’t handle more than four parts.”

After failing to win a settlement in the first trial, Starrh was eventually awarded an $8.5 million dollar settlement. “The judgment against them was a green light for further pollution,” says Starrh.

According to Starrh, the judgment amount was determined as the pennies per barrel difference in profit Aera made by not lining the ponds to protect the groundwater from the well’s produced wastewater. There were no punitive damages awarded, Starrh told CPR.

Not a single Aera, Shell or Mobil executive paid any fines for their decision to ignore California regulations and the companies suffered no loss for knowingly and with absolute certainty polluting the area’s groundwater for the next 50 to 100 years.

Starrh’s case was made more difficult by the judge’s seeming bias toward the oil producers. Starrh was not allowed to call his farm a “family farm, even though my two sons and two daughters work here with me,” said Starrh. “The judge said it would prejudice the jury.”

Starrh also was denied the right to full disclosure of the effects the contamination had on the groundwater. “Our water is now radioactive – our water’s radioactive – but we weren’t allowed to tell the jury that the water’s radioactive because the judge said it might also prejudice the jury against them, against Aera,” Starrh explained.

State regulations were ignored by industry and even California’s own DOGGR inspectors. And the courts failed to demand Aera, Mobil and Shell clean up the environmental damage they caused. And executives and the companies involved suffered no financial loss. Starrh has found no justice, scant compensation and has lost trust in California’s agencies and the judicial system.

“I don’t have any faith in the system to be honest,” said Starrh. “I watched the state’s regulators stand by and allow them to contaminate our water for decades and do nothing about it.” Starrh claims DOGGR and Water Quality inspectors essentially looked the other way for 40 years while Aera pumped more than 50 million barrels of wastewater into what were obviously unlined ponds in clear violation of existing state law, before the polluted produced wastewater migrated underground and into a plume that will continue to pollute the local groundwater for the next 50 years, according to Aera’s own experts.

Starrh has gone back to court seeking cleanup of his farm’s water but has had little success, so far. “The judge said it would cost too much to clean up our water. That in order to clean up enough of the boron to make the water usable for irrigation it would be too costly to Aera. So they denied our request.”

Starrh says he is not opposed to oil drilling in California, in fact he believes we need energy independence, but he warns Californians against trusting the state, the courts or especially the oil industry when they claim they are sensitive and concerned about water purity in California. According to Starrh, it’s just not the case. He believes oil companies make the decision whether or not to pollute local groundwater as a business calculation, disregarding state regulation or environmental catastrophe.

“It’s their mantra. We heard it throughout the trial,” Starrh said.

“I don’t want to see them shut down,” said Starrh of oil producers in Kern County. “I want them to be responsible and accountable.”