Clean Water Act Case Settled Against Orcutt Hill Oil Operation
Pumpjack at Orcutt Hill (Photo: PCEC)
Source: Environmental Defense Center
The Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) reached a final settlement with Pacific Coast Energy Company LP (“PCEC”), for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act (“CWA”). PCEC conducts oil exploration and development activities using enhanced oil extraction techniques such as cyclic steam injection at its 5,400 acre Orcutt Hill oil field operation. Polluted runoff from this facility, which is located in northern Santa Barbara County, flows into Orcutt Creek and San Antonio Creek, which drain into the Santa Maria River and the Pacific Ocean, respectively. These waters provide important habitat for threatened and endangered species, such as the Unarmored Threespined Stickleback, the Tidewater Goby, the Red Legged frog and steelhead, and are used for public recreation and enjoyment. The settlement will reduce polluted runoff from the Orcutt Hill facility and establish a $115,000 fund for projects that enhance the quality of local watersheds.
“We are pleased that the oil company has committed to addressing polluted stormwater runoff at its facility, which will greatly benefit local communities and wildlife,” stated Maggie Hall, EDC Staff Attorney. “In addition to cleaning up pollution sources, the settlement also provides for a substantial fund strictly dedicated to on-the-ground projects that will restore the affected watersheds.”
Under the settlement, PCEC has agreed to improve storm water management practices at its facility, largely by improving its road network to reduce runoff, addressing a specific problematic well pad, adding a location for the collection of stormwater samples, and improving its program for monitoring runoff. In addition, instead of a penalty, PCEC will donate $115,000 to the Rose foundation for Communities and the Environment for the sole purpose of providing grants for restoration projects in the San Antonio Creek, Orcutt Creek, and/or Santa Maria River watersheds.
EDC’s lawsuit alleged that PCEC has been illegally discharging polluted storm water in violation of California’s permit that protects waterways from contaminated storm water runoff from industrial facilities. The lawsuit stated that PCEC was discharging total suspended solids, oil and grease, and potentially other pollutants far above water quality benchmarks and failed to conduct sampling and monitoring of its storm water discharges as required by the permit.
In 2016, PCEC applied to expand its drilling operations by 144 wells, at which point EDC raised concerns over the 100 documented oil spills and seeps caused by the company’s Orcutt Hill operation. Faced with uncontroverted evidence of historically risky operations, Santa Barbara County denied PCEC’s application.
Storm water is among the top sources of water contamination in southern California, as significant quantities of pollution enter our waterways during rain events. Oil field operations such as those conducted at the Orcutt Hill oil field, which include operation of miles of unpaved roads, construction, well drilling, well completion and stimulation (including cyclic steam injection and acidizing), production, and equipment maintenance, commonly discharge a wide range of conventional and hazardous pollutants, such as total suspended solids, oil and grease, pH, benzene, lead, arsenic, chlorides, and ethanol xylenes. The adverse impacts of these pollutants on water quality can pose risks to fish and other aquatic organisms, wildlife, and human health.
Under California’s “General Permit for Storm Water Discharges Associated with Industrial Activities,” industrial facilities are prohibited from discharging pollutants, including total suspended solids, oil and grease, and toxic chemicals, in excess of applicable water quality standards and without applying the best available and best conventional pollution treatment technologies to their pollution sources. PCEC had consistently discharged polluted runoff yet has failed to take corrective action to fully remedy the pollution.
EDC is represented in this action by its in-house staff attorneys and Michael Lozeau of Lozeau Drury LLP.