Fracking the Poor

A 5-month investigation reveals that fracking operations in California are disproportionately concentrated in poor communities of color—and may be causing alarming health effects.

Hannah Guzik November 19, 2014

In a community garden next to Sequoia Elementary in Shafter, California, gardeners harvest vegetables within sight of an oil pump.

It was sup­posed to be a good day. It was the first day of school and Johan­na Romo, 12, had just wok­en up. It was already hot, and if she had looked out the win­dow, she would have seen smog hug­ging the val­ley floor, obscur­ing the moun­tains, as it has almost every day this year. But she didn’t have a chance to look out the window.

The fact is, no one knows what is happening to Johanna. Neither the oil companies nor the government are accountable to Johanna and her family.

As Johan­na sat up and pre­pared to put on her school uni­form — a blue shirt and kha­ki pants — her body lurched back­ward onto the floor, vio­lent­ly shaking.

She would nev­er make it to class that mid-August morn­ing, the first day of sev­enth grade. A few weeks lat­er, anoth­er seizure fol­lowed, and Johan­na was hos­pi­tal­ized for three days while doc­tors ran tests and scanned her brain.

Johan­na lives in Shafter, a small, heav­i­ly Lati­no town in California’s Kern Coun­ty. Kern is one of 19 coun­ties in the Cen­tral Val­ley, an arid, sun­burned place between the Sier­ra Neva­da and Coast Ranges, home to farms that grow a third of the nation’s pro­duce. It is a place haunt­ed by extremes — extreme heat, extreme drought and, in many areas, extreme pover­ty. There is also, under the earth’s crust, an extreme amount of oil — the Mon­terey For­ma­tion, esti­mat­ed to be among the most oil-rich resources in the Unit­ed States.The nation’s oil com­pa­nies have set up shop in this cra­dle of Cal­i­for­nia, drilling and frack­ing in thou­sands of loca­tions, includ­ing one about 100 yards from where Johan­na attend­ed ele­men­tary school. That’s where she first began get­ting headaches and nosebleeds.

Johanna’s fam­i­ly believes that frack­ing and its asso­ci­at­ed envi­ron­men­tal pol­lu­tants are at least par­tial­ly to blame for her health prob­lems and those of oth­ers in their town, where the grape and almond farms are pocked with oil wells.

Oil has been siphoned out of Cal­i­for­nia for more than a cen­tu­ry, most­ly from the Cen­tral Val­ley, which pro­duces more than 80 per­cent of the state’s oil. Oil com­pa­nies have also been frack­ing in Cal­i­for­nia for at least six decades. Here, the prac­tice is typ­i­cal­ly used to extract oil, unlike the frack­ing for nat­ur­al gas that’s been boom­ing in oth­er states.

The devel­op­ment has dri­ven down prop­er­ty val­ues in many of the oil-rich regions of Cal­i­for­nia. The cost of liv­ing in these poten­tial­ly blight­ed areas may make it more fea­si­ble for peo­ple with few­er means to be able to live there,” explains Seth B.C. Shon­koff, a pub­lic health sci­en­tist and exec­u­tive direc­tor of PSE Healthy Ener­gy, a non­prof­it that brings sci­en­tif­ic trans­paren­cy to ener­gy pol­i­cy deci­sions. Land in the Cen­tral Val­ley goes for as lit­tle as $2,000 an acre, and the val­ley con­tains some of the poor­est coun­ties in Cal­i­for­nia, many of which have large Lati­no farm work­er populations.

An analy­sis by the non­prof­it Frac­Track­er Alliance con­duct­ed for In These Times found that the 5 mil­lion Cal­i­for­nia res­i­dents who live with­in a mile of an oil or gas well have a pover­ty rate 32.5 per­cent high­er than that of the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion. Over­all, Frac­Track­er found that almost 20 per­cent of Cal­i­for­ni­ans who live below the pover­ty line — more than 700,000 peo­ple — also live with­in a mile of a well.

A relat­ed Frac­Track­er analy­sis for an Octo­ber report by the Nat­ur­al Resources Defense Coun­cil (NRDC) found that of the Cal­i­for­ni­ans who live with­in a mile of a well, 69 per­cent are peo­ple of col­or. In addi­tion, almost 2 mil­lion peo­ple who live with­in a mile of a well are clas­si­fied as among the most vul­ner­a­ble” to the effects of pol­lu­tion by CalEn­vi­ro­Screen, a tool devel­oped by the Cal­i­for­nia EPA. That means that they not only reside in some of the most pol­lut­ed areas of the state, close to indus­tri­al facil­i­ties, trans­porta­tion cor­ri­dors, haz­ardous waste facil­i­ties and tox­ic cleanup sites, but are espe­cial­ly sen­si­tive to pol­lu­tion because of fac­tors like pover­ty, asth­ma, youth or old age. Near­ly 92 per­cent of these most vul­ner­a­ble 2 mil­lion are peo­ple of color.

California’s com­mu­ni­ties of col­or have long been dump­ing grounds for indus­tri­al pol­lu­tion — and our analy­sis shows that frack­ing is poised to pile on more if the oil and gas indus­try has its way,” wrote Miri­am Rotkin-Ell­man, a senior sci­en­tist at the NRDC.

What all this means is that low-income com­mu­ni­ties of col­or are bear­ing the brunt of California’s oil indus­try — includ­ing its frack­ing exper­i­ments, which are poor­ly reg­u­lat­ed and whose health impacts are large­ly unknown.

It’s a civ­il rights issue,” says Abre’ Con­ner, the staff attor­ney at Kern County’s Cen­ter on Race, Pover­ty and the Envi­ron­ment. When we look at where the frack­ing wells are being located,when we look at the health impacts across the state of Cal­i­for­nia and real­ly across the coun­try, we see the same types of issues and the same types of dis­par­i­ties that we’ve seen with edu­ca­tion and vot­ing rights.”

Oil coun­try

Accord­ing to data com­piled by Frac­Track­er, more than 80 per­cent of the 2,904 fracked oil wells in Cal­i­for­nia are locat­ed in Kern Coun­ty, which has the third-high­est oil pro­duc­tion per day of any coun­ty in the nation. It is also among the poor­est coun­ties in Cal­i­for­nia; accord­ing to cen­sus data, 22.5 per­cent of res­i­dents fall below the pover­ty line, sig­nif­i­cant­ly more than the 15.3 per­cent statewide. Kern is home to many recent immi­grants and farm work­ers; about 51 per­cent of its 865,000 res­i­dents are Lati­no. Accord­ing to the NRDC study, three-quar­ters of Kern res­i­dents liv­ing in a pol­lut­ed area and with­in a mile of a well are peo­ple of col­or, while com­mu­ni­ties that are in less pol­lut­ed areas and far­ther from wells are major­i­ty white.

In 2010, oil com­pa­nies con­tributed 34 per­cent of Kern County’s pri­vate sec­tor gross domes­tic prod­uct, or $8.3 bil­lion. The mas­cot at Bak­ers­field High School, paint­ed tall on a build­ing over­look­ing Cal­i­for­nia Avenue, is the Driller. This is a place where as many oil sup­port­ers showed up at the local Epis­co­pal church to protest a screen­ing of the anti-frack­ing doc­u­men­tary Gasland Part II as did those inter­est­ed in the film. This is a place with an unin­cor­po­rat­ed area called Oil­dale. This is a place where, when the coun­ty held a meet­ing to dis­cuss a refin­ery expan­sion, dozens of union work­ers came in their boots and Carhartts to show their sup­port for the project and for the 200 jobs it would bring. This is a place that has vot­ed Repub­li­can in every pres­i­den­tial elec­tion since Lyn­don John­son was elect­ed in 1964. Some­times called Texas West,” this is a place where peo­ple grow up with agri­cul­ture and oil in their blood, where using the land now for jobs to the pos­si­ble detri­ment of the future sounds to many like a nec­es­sary plan — like the only plan.

I’m for any­thing that will bring rev­enue and mon­ey to the city,” says Mor­gan Suy­cott, a retired uni­ver­si­ty coun­selor, as he stands out­side the Kern Coun­ty Board of Super­vi­sors cham­bers in Bak­ers­field, wait­ing for a board meet­ing about a pro­posed refin­ery expan­sion that would allow trains to bring in Bakken crude for ser­vic­ing. The board unan­i­mous­ly approved the project that after­noon, to the applause of more than 100 sup­port­ers in the audience.

Johanna’s father, Rodri­go Romo, under­stands the need for jobs. He’s been unem­ployed for more than four years since seri­ous­ly injur­ing his leg at the roof­ing fac­to­ry where he worked. Romo, 37, who start­ed a com­mu­ni­ty gar­den last year in Shafter and attends col­lege class­es to improve his Eng­lish, wants what’s best for his fam­i­ly and his com­mu­ni­ty, what­ev­er that ends up being. And he wants infor­ma­tion. They don’t tell us noth­ing,” he says of the frack­ing oper­a­tions. I under­stand it’s very com­pli­cat­ed, but they should still tell us some­thing. It feels like one per­son can’t fight with the big­ger com­pa­nies and the oil and the government.

I’m very con­cerned about my daugh­ter,” Romo says. A few months ago, anoth­er girl, a friend of my daughter’s, she passed away for no rea­son. My daugh­ter said, I don’t want to die like my friend.’”

At a neigh­bor­hood meet­ing in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber at Romo’s com­mu­ni­ty gar­den, which is next to Johanna’s ele­men­tary school, chil­dren prac­ticed cheer­lead­ing on the grass and a dozen gar­den­ers gath­ered around a pic­nic table talk­ing. Many say they believe their family’s health has been affect­ed by the oil devel­op­ment. They talk about asth­ma and unex­plained ill­ness­es, some fatal. Rosario Gar­cia, a vol­un­teer at the gar­den, says that four years ago, his 9‑year-old son, Miguel, devel­oped asth­ma, which he thinks may be relat­ed to the pol­lu­tion in the val­ley. It scares me very much,” Gar­cia says. The first time he got pur­ple and tried to jump to try to get air.”

Belen Lopez, who is rais­ing four chil­dren in Shafter, says she wor­ries about her kids attend­ing school near frack­ing and waste wells. Sit­ting next to Lopez, Tere­sa Tutor says she’s think­ing of mov­ing because the oil pro­duc­tion noise and air pol­lu­tion have got­ten so bad. Some of the oth­er com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers nod, silent­ly. What goes unsaid is that not every­one has the finan­cial means to move.

Frack­ing unknowns

Accord­ing to the Amer­i­can Lung Asso­ci­a­tion, the Cen­tral Val­ley and the Los Ange­les Basin have the worst smog in the nation. Walled on three sides by moun­tain ranges, the val­ley traps agri­cul­tur­al emis­sions and exhaust from the free­ways. Oil pro­duc­tion, which releas­es tox­ic chem­i­cals from well­heads and brings belch­ing machin­ery and trucks, makes the smog worse. Res­i­dents of these heav­i­ly pol­lut­ed com­mu­ni­ties already suf­fer high rates of pol­lu­tion-relat­ed ill­ness­es such as asthma.

When you add [oil and gas] wells to the Cen­tral Val­ley, which already has one of the worst air pol­lu­tion rates in North Amer­i­ca, you’re adding to the bur­den of smog and push­ing it way into the dan­ger zone,” says San­dra Ste­in­graber, a biol­o­gist and the author of Rais­ing Eli­jah: Pro­tect­ing Our Chil­dren in an Age of Envi­ron­men­tal Cri­sis.

In addi­tion to increas­ing smog-relat­ed breath­ing prob­lems gen­er­al­ly, frack­ing may also pose addi­tion­al health dan­gers through local air pol­lu­tion and chem­i­cal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. Could it be caus­ing Johanna’s seizures? Much of the infor­ma­tion need­ed to answer that ques­tion is shroud­ed from pub­lic view. The prob­lem is that this indus­try sur­rounds itself with so much secre­cy,” says Ste­in­graber. Unlike any oth­er indus­try, it’s not required to tell us what chem­i­cals are being released into the envi­ron­ment, and also it’s not required to mea­sure and mon­i­tor cumu­la­tive air emis­sions. … For that rea­son, pub­lic health sci­ence has to work with one hand tied behind its back.” The oil and gas indus­tries have long enjoyed exemp­tions from fed­er­al laws like the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drink­ing Water Act, mean­ing that, when it comes to frack­ing, they aren’t required to mon­i­tor and report what chem­i­cals go in or what chem­i­cals come out,” explains the NRDC’s Rotkin-Ellman.

Sci­en­tists do know that frack­ing — both for oil and nat­ur­al gas — can release a num­ber of tox­ins and car­cino­gens into the envi­ron­ment, includ­ing arsenic, ben­zene and toluene. While non-fracked oil wells also can cause such envi­ron­men­tal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, the frack­ing process may increase the risk, says Rotkin-Ellman.

Each of these com­pounds has known health effects. Expo­sure to high lev­els of arsenic in the water sup­ply is asso­ci­at­ed with skin lesions, can­cer, devel­op­men­tal prob­lems, car­dio­vas­cu­lar dis­ease and dia­betes, accord­ing to PSE Healthy Energy’s Seth Shon­koff. Ele­vat­ed expo­sures to toluene in the air can neg­a­tive­ly affect kid­ney, liv­er and ner­vous sys­tem func­tion, and can lead to some types of heart dis­ease. Toluene can also irri­tate the skin and eyes. Ben­zene, which near­ly all field stud­ies find in ele­vat­ed con­cen­tra­tions in the air around oil and gas devel­op­ments, has no safe thresh­old, Shon­koff says. In high con­cen­tra­tions, ben­zene can lead to the devel­op­ment of cer­tain types of leukemia and is also linked to adverse birth out­comes, includ­ing neur­al tube defects. The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, in high con­cen­tra­tions or with chron­ic expo­sure, either ben­zene or toluene could cause seizures like those Johan­na has experienced.

What’s still not ful­ly under­stood, how­ev­er, is the extent of the chem­i­cal con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from frack­ing, and to what degree it is affect­ing pub­lic health. Sci­en­tists are ham­pered not only by the lack of infor­ma­tion from indus­try, but also by the dif­fi­cul­ty of teas­ing out the effects of oth­er pol­lu­tants, the slow emer­gence of dis­eases like can­cer and the chal­lenges of col­lect­ing med­ical infor­ma­tion and accu­mu­lat­ing sig­nif­i­cant sam­ple sizes in rur­al areas.

Mean­while, the oil and nat­ur­al gas indus­tries main­tain that frack­ing is per­fect­ly safe, and indeed, at least one indus­try-fund­ed study found no cor­re­la­tion between oil and gas devel­op­ment and pub­lic health risk. But a hand­ful of peer-reviewed sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies have found that peo­ple liv­ing near oil and gas oper­a­tions are at an increased risk of cer­tain health prob­lems, includ­ing can­cer, res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases, skin infec­tions and adverse birth out­comes. A Col­orado study pub­lished in 2012 found that peo­ple liv­ing less than half a mile from nat­ur­al gas wells, many of which were fracked, were at a greater risk of health prob­lems and can­cer than peo­ple liv­ing far­ther away. The hydro­car­bon emis­sions from oil and gas devel­op­ment can result in ele­vat­ed air pol­lu­tion con­cen­tra­tions that exceed U.S. EPA guide­lines for both car­cino­genic and non-car­cino­genic health risks,” wrote Shon­koff about the study, as part of a review he co-authored in August. A study pub­lished in April by the same Col­orado researchers found that preg­nant women liv­ing with­in 10 miles of nat­ur­al gas wells in Col­orado, many of which were fracked, were more like­ly to deliv­er babies with con­gen­i­tal heart and neur­al tube defects.

No one has con­duct­ed a study in Cal­i­for­nia on the health effects asso­ci­at­ed with oil and gas devel­op­ment, Shon­koff says, much less in the small town where Johan­na lives. Because of our lim­it­ed under­stand­ing of how the body inter­acts with tox­ins in its envi­ron­ment, and because there are so many oth­er social, behav­ioral, envi­ron­men­tal and bio­log­i­cal fac­tors at play, it’s dif­fi­cult to deter­mine whether Johanna’s health prob­lems are — or are not — the result of fracking.

The bur­den of proof is on the vic­tim,” says Tom Frantz, an almond farmer who lives in Kern Coun­ty and knows Johanna’s fam­i­ly. So there’s noth­ing they can do.”

Whose back­yard?

As frack­ing has grown and grabbed head­lines around the coun­try, some states and munic­i­pal­i­ties have passed laws to shield res­i­dents from poten­tial health effects. Col­orado recent­ly adopt­ed new reg­u­la­tions, among the strongest in the coun­try, that require oil com­pa­nies to ful­ly report the frack­ing chem­i­cals they use. In New York state, more than 170 com­mu­ni­ties have enact­ed bans or mora­to­ri­ums on fracking.

Oth­ers, how­ev­er, have passed laws shield­ing com­pa­nies from reg­u­la­tion. North Dako­ta leg­is­la­tors have request­ed that the state be exempt from fed­er­al frack­ing rules, and Penn­syl­va­nia enact­ed a pro-frack­ing law in 2012 that, among oth­er things, sought to strip com­mu­ni­ties of their right to use local zon­ing laws to lim­it oil and gas devel­op­ment. (A group of sev­en munic­i­pal­i­ties suc­cess­ful­ly sued to over­turn this por­tion of the law.)

Many local ordi­nances ask or require com­pa­nies to report the chem­i­cals they use in frack­ing. Oil and gas com­pa­nies in Mis­sis­sip­pi, Mon­tana, Okla­homa, Texas, Penn­syl­va­nia, North Dako­ta, Col­orado and Louisiana report at least some of those chem­i­cals on Frac​Fo​cus​.org. How­ev­er, the data has been crit­i­cized by a Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty study because it involves self-report­ing, and thus there’s no way to know whether dis­clo­sures are being made quick­ly or fully.

In Cal­i­for­nia, local gov­ern­ments have the abil­i­ty to reg­u­late nat­ur­al resources with­in their bound­aries. This has led some cities to ban or strict­ly lim­it frack­ing wells, includ­ing Arroyo Grande, Berke­ley, Bev­er­ly Hills, Los Ange­les, San Luis Obis­po, San Fran­cis­co, San­ta Bar­bara and Sebastopol, as well as the coun­ties of Marin, Men­do­ci­no, San Ben­i­to and Sono­ma. Most of these cities and coun­ties are wealthy and edu­cat­ed. That pat­tern extends beyond Cal­i­for­nia. In parts of the coun­try, pop­u­la­tions with a high­er socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus have suc­cess­ful­ly advo­cat­ed for stronger reg­u­la­tions or mora­to­ri­ums or bans,” Shon­koff says.

Indeed, in most of Cal­i­for­nia, includ­ing Kern Coun­ty, no local frack­ing reg­u­la­tions exist. A few low-income cities in the state, such as Comp­ton, have insti­tut­ed their own mora­to­ri­ums on frack­ing, sig­nal­ing that the tide can turn even in poor areas if there’s enough sup­port and mobi­liza­tion. But it’s dif­fi­cult. The oil and gas indus­try has spent over $77 mil­lion lob­by­ing Cal­i­for­nia pol­i­cy mak­ers in the last five years, accord­ing to reports filed with the Cal­i­for­nia Sec­re­tary of State. When pit­ted against a deep-pock­et­ed indus­try, low-income com­mu­ni­ties often lack the infor­ma­tion, orga­niz­ing pow­er or resources to stop wells from appear­ing in their neigh­bor­hoods. Locals often don’t find out about new wells until after they are oper­a­tional. We see [oil com­pa­nies] try­ing to keep peo­ple from being edu­cat­ed,” Con­ner says.

Mean­while, as frack­ing con­tin­ues to expand to more wells in Cal­i­for­nia, the infu­sion of mon­ey and jobs is attrac­tive to strug­gling cities, such as those in the Cen­tral Val­ley. State leg­is­la­tors who rep­re­sent the region, includ­ing the cities of Fres­no and Bak­ers­field, have held forums to dis­cuss the ben­e­fits of fracking.

Last year, Cal­i­for­nia Gov. Jer­ry Brown signed a bill, SB 4, that impos­es statewide reg­u­la­tions on the frack­ing indus­try — which had pre­vi­ous­ly been near­ly ungoverned. Among oth­er things, begin­ning in July 2015, com­pa­nies will have to send notices in Eng­lish and Span­ish to res­i­dents liv­ing with­in 1,500 feet of a well­head before frack­ing begins. At present, Con­ner says, some oil com­pa­nies send Eng­lish-only notices to Kern Coun­ty res­i­dents, despite the fact that 42 per­cent of fam­i­lies in the coun­ty speak a lan­guage oth­er than Eng­lish at home, accord­ing to cen­sus data. (In Shafter, where Johan­na lives, that pro­por­tion is more than 70 percent).

Drink­ing fracking’s waste

Accord­ing to Shon­koff, the great­est like­li­hood of expo­sure to chem­i­cals from oil and gas devel­op­ment is prob­a­bly through the air. But pub­lic health experts are also con­cerned that frack­ing can con­t­a­m­i­nate ground­wa­ter. The wor­ry is not just about frack­ing itself, but about the dis­pos­al of the bil­lions of gal­lons of waste the process gen­er­ates, which includes drilling mud, oil, water and frack­ing flu­ids — a tox­ic soup of chem­i­cals. In one dis­pos­al method, also used for waste­water from oth­er meth­ods of oil and gas pro­duc­tion, var­i­ous mix­tures of these byprod­ucts are inject­ed into the earth in waste injec­tion wells. 2012 ProP­ub­li­ca inves­ti­ga­tion found that the EPA has failed to prop­er­ly pro­tect aquifers from pol­lu­tion from injec­tion wells and has grant­ed more than 1,100 excep­tions to the Safe Drink­ing Water Act. Many of these exemp­tions still stand today, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Cal­i­for­nia, which, accord­ing to Frac-Tracker’s data, has 1,105 waste injec­tion wells — three-quar­ters of which are sit­u­at­ed in Kern Coun­ty. While SB 4 requires oil com­pa­nies to noti­fy res­i­dents of their intent to frack wells near­by, there’s no such require­ment for frack­ing dis­pos­al wells.

With Cal­i­for­nia in the midst of a 100-year drought, water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion from frack­ing is a hot issue. This sum­mer, the state launched an inves­ti­ga­tion into the mat­ter and shut down 11 waste injec­tion wells out of con­cern that they may be con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing aquifers. The Cen­tral Val­ley Region­al Water Board sub­se­quent­ly con­clud­ed that nine of the wells had been inject­ing waste into aquifers suit­able for drink­ing and irri­ga­tion, which are sup­posed to be pro­tect­ed under fed­er­al and state law. The water board found high lev­els of arsenic, thal­li­um and nitrates in drink­ing water wells near the injec­tion sites. In a law­suit filed against four oil com­pa­nies this Sep­tem­ber, a Kern Coun­try farm alleged that aquifer pol­lu­tion had result­ed in the death of its crops.

And then there are the unlined dump­ing pits for drilling waste, known as sumps. While the state keeps tabs on frack­ing dis­pos­al wells, it has failed to track sumps, and the Cen­tral Val­ley Region­al Water Board esti­mates that oil com­pa­nies have dumped drillingaste into thou­sands of these pits since oil pro­duc­tion began here in the 1890s. There is no pub­licly avail­able map to locate past and cur­rent sumps, and there is no require­ment that oil com­pa­nies noti­fy neigh­bors before con­struct­ing one.

The largest oil and gas pro­duc­er in Cal­i­for­nia and Kern Coun­ty, Occi­den­tal Petro­le­um Cor­po­ra­tion, says it is con­fi­dent that its sumps and waste injec­tion wells do not affect under­ground sources of drink­ing water. Like­wise, the West­ern States Petro­le­um Asso­ci­a­tion, which rep­re­sents all major oil pro­duc­ers in the West, says it’s not aware of any instances where waste injec­tion wells or sumps have con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed ground­wa­ter. Fun­da­men­tal­ly, I don’t think any­one has ever said that the process, when prop­er­ly con­struct­ed, per­mit­ted and used, pos­es any risks to the water resources,” said spokesper­son Tup­per Hull in an inter­view in Sep­tem­ber. Hull did not respond to requests for com­ment on the water board’s find­ings of drink­ing water contamination.

Tom Frantz, who still lives in the house he grew up in just out­side Shafter, says he spends about 40 hours a week assess­ing frack­ing oper­a­tions and oth­er envi­ron­men­tal haz­ards in the town. It’s a hob­by, says Frantz, a for­mer math teacher, but real­ly, it’s more than that: It’s a way to help his com­mu­ni­ty under­stand what’s hap­pen­ing to it. In fall 2012, Frantz stood behind an almond tree and aimed a video cam­era at a sump in Shafter. What he saw alarmed him. A white, soapy look­ing flu­id was trick­ling into the pits that were only sup­posed to hold drilling mud. Frantz post­ed the footage online and showed it to the water board, prompt­ing them to inves­ti­gate. The board found that Vin­tage Pro­duc­tion Cal­i­for­nia LLC, a sub­sidiary of Occi­den­tal Petro­le­um Com­pa­ny, had vio­lat­ed California’s water code by dis­charg­ing frack­ing flu­ids into the sump. In a Novem­ber 2013 set­tle­ment, the com­pa­ny agreed to pay a $60,000 fine, but with­out admit­ting that any vio­la­tion occurred or that hydraulic frac­tur­ing prod­ucts were put into any sump,” said Charles Weiss, a spokesper­son for Cal­i­for­nia Resources Cor­po­ra­tion, anoth­er Occi­den­tal subsidiary.

In Sep­tem­ber, the water board announced anoth­er set­tle­ment agree­ment, this time with both Occi­den­tal and Vin­tage, after find­ing that they had ille­gal­ly dis­charged a com­bined 79,464 gal­lons of flu­ids into unlined sumps over the course of near­ly two years, end­ing in Novem­ber 2013. The set­tle­ment calls for fin­ing the com­pa­nies $6 per gal­lon of dis­charge, a reduc­tion from the $10 per gal­lon max­i­mum fine, for a total of $476,784.

Pro­posed reg­u­la­tions under SB 4 would pro­hib­it flu­ids relat­ed to well stim­u­la­tion from being stored in sumps begin­ning in July 2015, accord­ing to the Cal­i­for­nia Depart­ment of Oil, Gas and Geot­her­mal Resources. In the mean­time, sumps are still being used across the state, and advo­cates are con­cerned that they aren’t being reg­u­lat­ed. I don’t think I was so lucky to just go there one day and find them cheat­ing on the only day they cheat­ed,” Frantz says.

A fam­i­ly waits for answers

Since her first seizure, Johan­na has had two more. Her old­er sis­ter wit­nessed the sec­ond. When she saw Johanna’s eyes roll back into her head, she ran, scream­ing, to get their moth­er. The third seizure hap­pened in the children’s hos­pi­tal, where Johan­na was admit­ted in ear­ly Sep­tem­ber. The doc­tors did a series of brain scans and tests, and, as of press time, were still try­ing to deter­mine the cause.

Shon­koff says it’s pos­si­ble Johanna’s seizures are the result of expo­sure to pol­lu­tants from oil and gas devel­op­ment, but it would be extreme­ly dif­fi­cult to find out for sure. Epi­demi­o­log­i­cal tools are espe­cial­ly blunt when try­ing to assess the health out­comes of an indi­vid­ual per­son,” he says, launch­ing into an expla­na­tion of how we don’t know all of the chem­i­cals involved, their con­cen­tra­tions, when or how Johan­na was exposed, or any oth­er envi­ron­men­tal expo­sures, such as pes­ti­cides. So that’s a very long-wind­ed way of say­ing, Sure, it is pos­si­ble, but we don’t have enough infor­ma­tion to say with certainty.’”

Cas­es like Johanna’s upset Shon­koff. It is unac­cept­able to not have to dis­close what chem­i­cals you’re using across the street from somebody’s house,” he says. It hin­ders our abil­i­ty to under­stand and pro­tect the health of our com­mu­ni­ties.” The fact is no one knows what is hap­pen­ing to Johan­na. Frack­ing and its asso­ci­at­ed waste, as well as the state and fed­er­al government’s fail­ure to prop­er­ly reg­u­late both, could be at play. Or maybe it’s coin­ci­dence. Ulti­mate­ly, nei­ther the oil com­pa­nies nor the gov­ern­ment are account­able to Johan­na and her family.

Mean­while, Johan­na is being home­schooled because of her med­ical prob­lems. She waits, and wor­ries — about her health, whether she’ll have anoth­er seizure and what it might mean if she does. It doesn’t seem fair. It’s hard,” she says one espe­cial­ly hot day, soon after com­ing home from the hos­pi­tal. I’m feel­ing tired.”

This arti­cle was sup­port­ed by a grant from the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing.

Han­nah Guzik is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist who writes about health and the envi­ron­ment. She lives in Ven­tu­ra, Cal­i­for­nia. Guzik became inter­est­ed in frack­ing and its pos­si­ble health effects after dis­cov­er­ing that there are frack­ing fields not far from where she grew up in Ven­tu­ra Coun­ty, adja­cent to the Los Padres Nation­al For­est and near a pro­tect­ed refuge for Cal­i­for­nia con­dors. She was sur­prised to dis­cov­er the frack­ing occur­ring in her community’s back­yard, and con­cerned that the extent of frack­ing in Cal­i­for­nia was not pub­lic knowledge.
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