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DOGGR shrinks area in Price Canyon proposed for aquifer exemption 

You have until Dec. 22 to comment on the latest application put forward to exempt a larger portion of the Arroyo Grande oil field from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The field's current operator, Sentinel Peak Resources, needs a final determination on the exemption before it can make any progress on the next two phases of an oil well-drilling expansion project in Price Canyon that is currently in limbo.

"We accept what their findings are on the most recent report," Sentinel's Director of Environmental Health and Safety Christine Halley said. "We're awaiting final wrap-up of the aquifer exemption process."

click to enlarge FILE PHOTO

Originally submitted in 2015 on behalf of Freeport McMoRan, the oil company that was operating in Price Canyon, and approved by the Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the State Water Resources Control Board, it stalled out at the U.S. EPA. It was the first application put forth after the 2014 discovery that DOGGR had allowed thousands of oil wells and water reinjection wells (including several in Price Canyon) to be drilled into California aquifers considered to be protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act.

The latest proposal comes more than a year and a half after the U.S. EPA requested further information from DOGGR and the water board about why the aquifer should be considered unusable for drinking water purposes and why the field should be considered "hydraulically isolated," meaning water doesn't flow between the oil field and neighboring aquifers that are used for drinking water purposes.

DOGGR and the water board say the aquifer in question is isolated by the presence of two things—a fault on one side and a tar seal for the remainder of the boundary. However, the new application shrinks the area of the proposed exemption due to the presence of two drinking water wells along the northeastern border.

"The additional water well and geologic data reconfirmed that the fault was sealing as originally described in the application," said Donald Drysdale, a spokesperson for DOGGR's parent agency, the California Department of Conservation. "For the added protection of nearby water sources where additional data could not be gathered, the water board and Division reduced the originally proposed aquifer exemption boundary."

That boundary change is a red flag for opponents of the project such as Price Canyon resident Natalie Risner and Center for Biological Diversity attorney Maya Golden-Krasner, who question why those two water wells weren't a part of the original application.

"It makes us question what else was missed," Risner said. "There's such a long history of uncertainty and inconsistency with DOGGR and with this aquifer exemption that has been going on for so long."

But DOGGR and the water board say that the two water wells in question are protected by the "impermeable nature" of the tar seal. And although, the application states that there's no evidence that the wells are drawing any water from the Arroyo Grande oil field, the boundary was adjusted just to be sure there was no overlap and "ensure the protection of the drinking water wells."

"The effectiveness of the seal is demonstrated by the lack of free oil in these domestic wells that allow their use for domestic drinking water. Absent the existence of the tar seal, free oil would have migrated into these wells," the application states.

For Golden-Krasner, though, the choice to move the boundary near those drinking water wells shows her that the agencies aren't as sure about the impermeability of the tar seal as they are about the fault.

"That was the first alarm," she said. "They should really not be injecting into aquifers that border people's water wells. It's just a really a bad idea."


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