Clean Water Act Enforcement Action Initiated Against Oil Company for Its Orcutt Hill Operation
Source: Environmental Defense Center
[On Tuesday] the Environmental Defense Center (“EDC”) notified Pacific Coast Energy Company LP (“PCEC”) (formerly BreitBurn Energy Company LP), of its intent to sue 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, drains into Orcutt Creek and San Antonio Creek, which then drain into the Santa Maria River and 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.
EDC’s notice letter alleges that PCEC has been illegally discharging polluted storm water in violation of California’s permit that protects rivers and streams from industrial facilities’ polluted storm water runoff. The notice states that PCEC is discharging total suspended solids, oil and grease and other pollutants far above water quality standards 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 promptly denied PCEC’s application. Instead, PCEC was required to undergo a project to clean up the oil seeps on the site by installing seep cans. EDC’s notice letter alleges that PCEC has also violated the Construction Permit for its installation of these seep cans by allowing further polluted discharges of storm water from its construction activities.
"According to its own data, PCEC’s Orcutt Hill oil development operation has discharged polluted storm water into our creeks and rivers contaminated with oil, grease and other pollutants," stated Alicia Roessler, EDC Staff Attorney. “It’s a shame that PCEC still cannot manage or control the pollution caused by its oil drilling operations, even when it is undertaking construction of a clean up operation to control its oil leaks. We hope that our notice will convince PCEC to clean up its operations and meet Clean Water Act standards, but EDC is prepared to go to court if necessary."
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, including operation of miles of unpaved roads, construction, well drilling, well completion and stimulation (including cyclic steam injection), production, and equipment maintenance, commonly discharge a wide range of conventional and hazardous pollutants, including 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 water quality standards and without applying the best available and best conventional pollution treatment technologies to their pollution sources. PCEC has consistently reported pollution levels well above applicable standards, yet has failed to take corrective action to remedy the pollution.
Under the Clean Water Act, potential litigants must send a 60-day notice of intent to sue before lawsuits can be filed alleging that a facility is in violation of the Act. While EDC is committed to pursuing legal remedies if necessary, the organization’s hope is that submission of the notice will prompt PCEC to comply with its mandatory permit requirements, thereby protecting water quality, without court intervention.
EDC is represented in this action by its in-house staff attorneys and Michael Lozeau and Douglas Chermak of Lozeau Drury LLP.
The notice letter is available here.