This article focuses on the city of Arvin as an example to show how some Frontline Communities in California are completely surrounded by an unrelenting barrage of carcinogenic and toxic air pollutants from oil and gas wells. Kern County’s proposed environmental impact report (EIR) would streamline the approval of an additional 67,000 new oil and gas wells in the County and thus further degrade air quality. We provide several recommendations for how local and state decision-makers can better protect public health from these serious threats.
Upstream greenhouse-gas and volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions from oil and gas extraction have been drastically under-reported throughout the United States, and California’s emissions regulations for oil and gas production wells are not comprehensive enough to protect Frontline Communities. The contribution of VOCs from the oil and gas extraction sector is responsible for California’s central valley and Kern County communities being exposed to the worst air quality in the country. As carcinogens, air toxics, and precursors to ozone, VOC’s present a myriad of health threats.
The contribution of VOCs from the well-sites in Kern, in addition to the cumulative burden of the Central Valley’s degraded air quality, puts Kern residents at considerable risk. Obvious loopholes in the California Air Resources Board’s oil and gas rule must be addressed immediately, and revised to prevent the cumulative impact of multiple exposure sources from causing additional documented negative health impacts. Additionally Kern County’s proposed environmental impact report (EIR) would streamline the approval of an additional 67,000 new oil and gas wells in the County and thus further degrade air quality. It is crucial that the EIR is instead revised to eliminate extraction near sensitive populations. (For more details on this proposal, see our more in depth environmental justice analysis of Kern County and our article on the proposed EIR.)
In support of establishing new public health rules that protect Frontline Communities, Earthwork’s Community Empowerment Project, in collaboration with the Central California Environmental Justice Network and FracTracker Alliance, has focused on documenting the uncontrolled emissions from extraction sites within and surrounding the small city of Arvin, California. Using infrared cameras with state of the art optical gas imaging (OGI) technology, the team documented major leaks at multiple well-sites. Footage from Arvin spans the years from 2016-2020. A collection of this footage has been compiled into the interactive story map that follows.
Toxic Emissions Filmed at Oil and Gas Wells in Arvin, CA
This StoryMap explores how current California regulations fail to stop emissions from tanks on oil and gas well-sites by looking at examples of emissions from well-sites in Arvin, California. Place your cursor over the image and scroll down to advance the StoryMap and explore a series of maps charting the fracking-for-plastic system. Click on the icon in the bottom left to view the legend.
View Full Sized Map | Updated 3/4/21
The cases of uncontrolled emissions in the story map provides just an example of the inventory of uncontrolled emissions sources in Kern County, and California at large. Finding and filming emissions sources while using OGI cameras in California is not at all uncommon, otherwise there would not be seven prime examples just in the City of Arvin. Prior to 2018, emissions from these well-sites went completely unregulated. While the California oil and gas rule (COGR) was developed to address greenhouse gas emissions from small sources, certain aspects of the rule are not being enforced by the local air districts. Rather than requiring tanks to have closed evaporation systems the air districts allow operators to set pressure/vacuum hatches to open and emit toxic and carcinogenic vapors when pressure builds inside tanks. While this is a safety mechanism on tanks, in practice it allows tanks to be consistent sources of exposure that put neighboring communities at risk. Specifically, California Code of Regulations, Title 17, Division 3, Chapter 1, Subchapter 10 Climate Change, Article 4, § 95669, Leak Detection and Repair, Paragraph I states that “Hatches shall remain closed at all times except during sampling, adding process material, or attended maintenance operations.”
Degraded Air Quality
New research from Harvard, Berkeley and Stanford has shown that living near oil and gas drilling and extraction exposes Frontline Communities to emissions of VOC’s and ozone that put them at risk for a variety of health impacts. Researchers at Stanford have linked proximity and density of oil and gas wells to preterm birth for pregnant mothers (Gonzalez et al. 2020), even at large distances. Similar research from UC Berkeley showed mothers living near oil and gas drilling and extraction are also at risk of birthing infants with low birth weight (Tran et al. 2020). The study found pregnant people who lived within 0.62 miles (1 kilometer) of the highest producing wells were 40% more likely to have low birth weight babies and 20% more likely to have babies who were small for their gestational age compared to people living farther away from wells or near inactive wells only. Most recently, new research from Harvard University shows that even very low ambient levels of ozone, particulate matter (PM2.5), and nitrogen dioxide increased hospitalizations for cardiac and respiratory conditions (Wang et al. 2021). These are the primary and secondary pollutants emitted from oil and gas extraction sites and also result from burning fossil fuels. The magnitude of the impact on public health is also much larger than previously considered. Another article recently published by researchers at Harvard shows that fossil fuel air pollution is responsible for 18% of total deaths, worldwide (Vohra, et al. 2021).
While the COGR rule is a step in the right direction to reduce emissions, oil and gas’s legacy of degradation to ambient air quality has placed the Central Valley in the worst categories for these pollutants in the country. This puts Kern residents at considerable risk. The local health department continues to report improved conditions and increased numbers of healthy air days, but the truth is the mean, median and maximum values of ozone concentrations at US EPA monitoring locations in Kern County have remained relatively constant at harmful levels from 2015-2019. Expanding the data to 2020 shows a two sharp decreases in ambient levels of pollutants that correspond to decreases in reported production volumes for the county. The first decrease in 2016 corresponds to a drop in production following the institution of State Bill requirements for fracking permits. The decrease in 2020 is a result of the slowed production and burning of fossil fuels related to the Covid-19 Pandemic, as shown below in Figure 1.
Figure 1. Plot of annual Maximum 1 hour Ozone concentrations at all monitoring locations in western Kern County. Ozone concentrations are presented in parts per million. Annual trends in ambient concentrations of ozone. Note the decrease in concentrations in 2016 and in 2020. Both events correlate to decreases in production.
Using the U.S. EPA’s AirData mapping portal, air quality data for Kern County was exported, compiled and plotted to show trends over time. Above in Figure 1, annual ambient concentrations of ozone are shown. The trends of ambient concentrations follow similar trends in the spatial and temporal distribution of CalGEM reported production volumes. FracTracker Alliance is conducting more thorough analyses of these correlations, so stay tuned for future reports.
The locations of these monitoring locations are shown below in the map in Figure 2. Note that there are not any monitors in northwestern Kern, near large oil fields including North Belridge and Lost Hills. The communities near these fields, such as the City of Lost Hills are predominantly Latinx with elevated levels of linguistic isolation and poverty.
Figure 2. Map of Air Quality Monitors in Kern County.
Permitting new oil and gas wells in Kern County is certain to degrade the already harmful local and regional ambient air quality of the Central Valley. Kern County’s proposed EIR, as it stands will streamline an additional 67,000 sources of VOCs to the inventory of emissions already impacting communities. The health impacts from concentrations of ozone are well established, and the release of VOCs are major risk driver for communities living closest to oil and gas extraction operations as well as for regional public health. Together, these primary and secondary pollutants create a major risk driver for Kern County communities. Globally, these emissions are responsible for upwards of 8 million premature deaths annually. The burden on Frontline Communities in Kern County is likely much higher, and will only grow if the currently drafted EIR is passed. Additional air quality monitoring stations in northwestern Kern County should be installed immediately to help track air quality impacts.
To reduce this harm to Frontline Communities, California Senator Scott Weiner has submitted a new senate bill. Senate Bill 467 would stop the issuance of hydraulic fracturing permits and create a public health setback distance of 2,500 feet from homes, schools and other health care facilities for all new drilling permits. The bill would also create a program to provide new training and job opportunities for workers who would be negatively impacted by the bill. Senate Bill 467 provides the first step for a green transition away from the health impacts resulting from fossil fuel industries.
The Take Away
Built on sound data and ample research, FracTracker recommends the following measures be taken to protect the health of California’s overburdened Frontline Communities: Kern County should revise its environmental impact report to address the onslaught of harmful oil and gas emissions (EIR), California Air Resources Board’s oil and gas rule should close its loophole allowing emissions from the pressure/vacuum hatch on the tank to be exempt from regulation, and legislators should educate themselves on the importance of 2,500 foot setbacks requirements for oil and gas wells.
References & Where to Learn More
FracTracker’s public comments regarding recommendations to modify the Kern County Draft Environmental Impact Report (EIR): https://www.fractracker.org/a5ej20sjfwe/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Kern.EIR_.comments_FracTrackerAlliance_3.8.21_compressed.pdf
FracTracker California articles, maps, and imagery: https://www.fractracker.org/map/us/california/
Earthwork’s Community Empowerment Project: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL9BS7nDf-8tqlaUT8pc0Yr0Tpfl0UFDMK
Newsom Well Watch, a collaboration between FracTracker and Consumer Watchdog: https://newsomwellwatch.com/
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