What’s in Your Watermelon?

california-produceWe have heard about water shortage and drought conditions in California for years. Residents limit their time in the shower, low flow toilets are installed and other water saving measures, including bans on watering lawns are something Californians have faced.

For the rest of the nation, the drought has brought higher costs for produce.

Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and California all share water from the Colorado River, a hugely important water resource that sustains 40 million people in those states, supports 15 percent of the nation’s food supply, and fills two of largest water reserves in the country.

California is in its 4th year of “extreme to exceptional drought” and has resulted in the first cutbacks to farmer’s water rights since 1977 and orders to cities and downs to cut water use as much as 36%.

Some farmers are fighting back the cutbacks.

Others are looking to the fossil fuel industry for help in the form of using fossil fuel waste water for irrigation.

Irrigation with Poisons
Corporations like Chevron’s Kern River oil field, is selling recycled wastewater from oil production to farmers in California’s Kern County. Each day, Chevron recycles and sells 21 million gallons of wastewater to farmers, which is then applied on about 10 percent of Kern County’s farmland.   The water from the Kern River oil field is applied to some 45,000 acres of crops, irrigating everything from nut trees to citrus fruits.

You may think this is something new. It’s not.

Chevron has been selling its waste water to farmers around the Kern River oil field for over 20 years, so how bad can it be?

We don’t know. Government authorities have never required that water to be tested for chemicals used in oil production — only naturally occurring toxins like salts and arsenic. And even those standards are “decades-old,” according to the Los Angeles Times.

Last year, California passed legislation which requires oil companies to disclose the chemicals used to extract the oil. California water authorities said oil companies would need to start checking to make sure that those same chemicals aren’t making it into recycled water bound for agricultural use.

Not surprising, the fossil fuel corporations are objecting and say the wastewater being sold for irrigation is safe.

Ten samples were taken along the canal in the Cawelo Water District by Water Defense. One sample showed levels of methylene chloride — an industrial solvent used to soften crude oil — as high as 56 parts per billion, four times the amount of methylene chloride found in 2013 when he tested parts of an Arkansas river fouled by the 2013 ExxonMobil tar sands pipeline spill.

Tests conducted by Water Defense, an environmental group founded by actor Mark Ruffalo in 2010, have found high levels of acetone and methylene chloride — compounds that can be toxic to humans — in wastewater from Chevron used for irrigation purposes. The tests also found the presence of oil, which is supposed to be removed from the wastewater during recycling.

Farmers say they can smell petrochemicals in the water.   It is assumed the soil is filtering out toxins before they can be absorbed by the crops; however it’s impossible to know for sure if this is happening.

What’s in the Water?
The only way to test for the presence of a toxin is to know what toxin may be there.    Scott Smith, chief scientist for Water Defense, said. “You’re not going to find chemicals of concern if you don’t look for them.”

California may not be the only state to allow fossil fuel wastewater to be used for irrigation. Surface disposal of water produced by oil and gas drilling is forbidden in the Eastern U.S. but allowed in the arid West for purposes of “agricultural or wildlife propagation,” in the words of the governing federal regulation. Thus, the “produced water,” as it is called, must be “of good enough quality to be used for wildlife or livestock watering or other agricultural uses.”

But is it “of good enough quality to be used for wildlife or livestock watering or other agricultural uses.” when we don’t know what is in the waste water?

Fossil Fuel corporations enjoy the privilege of being able to NOT disclose ALL the chemicals and hiding behind “trade secrets”. Government and industry officials often point to FracFocus as the source for finding out what chemicals are used in what gas or oil well.

Two areas of great concern with FracFocus are:

  1. No one verifies the information on FracFocus is complete or correct.
  2. No standard as to what is or isn’t a trade secret chemical. Fossil fuel
    corporations determine what is or isn’t a trade secret

FracFocus also only partially lists what is going DOWN a fossil fuel well, it doesn’t cover what is coming UP in the form of waste liquids. What comes UP is very different than what goes down.

What comes up is usually described as “brine” because it contains a lot of salt compounds. The “brine”, also known as flowback, is a combination of the chemicals and formation fluids.   Formation fluids are naturally occurring compounds found in the deep shale layers. It may contain arsenic, barium, radium, strontium, manganese, and a number of other hazardous materials.

In the sacrifice zones of Pennsylvania, Geochemists have found dangerous levels of radioactivity and salinity at a fracking disposal site near Blacklick Creek, which feeds into water sources for Pittsburgh and other western Pennsylvania cities.

The Duke scientists spent two years, from 2010 to 2012, taking soil samples upstream and downstream from the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility in Indiana County, PA.

Even after waste water was treated at the plant to remove dangerous chemicals, radiation was detected far above regulated levels.

The treated water had Radium levels 200 times greater than control water from the area, said Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment and one of the primary authors of the study.

A quote from the 1995 movie, the American President: “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

Today we are eating foods irrigated with toxic liquids because we don’t know the difference.

Perhaps our food should also be labeled for fossil fuel liquid waste so we will know the difference?


© 2015 by Dory Hippauf



  1. Why hasn’t anyone (pro or con) not taken a sample of the California water and tested it for toxins? Should be relatively simple. With those results it would make sense to tie it into the findings in Pennsylvania. If you can’t tie the two together the article is irrelevant.

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