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Lawsuit to slow Price Canyon aquifer exemption goes to court 

A Center for Biological Diversity lawsuit demanding that state oil regulators adhere to environmental laws in reviewing an aquifer exemption for the Price Canyon oilfield is headed for a final hearing in SLO County Superior Court on June 15.

The suit, filed in 2016, is seeking a court ruling to require that the state Division of Oil, Gas, and Geothermal Resources (DOGGR) and the state Water Resources Control Board conduct more environmental review to determine the oilfield's impact to the underground aquifer and potential drinking water sources, under the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).

"We [filed the lawsuit] because we found out about the illegal permitting of injection wells and realized [DOGGR] really shouldn't be making this really critical decision without doing any kind of CEQA review," said Maya Golden-Krasner, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity.

The litigation stems from a 2014 discovery that thousands of existing oil and water reinjection wells, statewide, were being drilled into aquifers protected by the Safe Drinking Water Act—including wells at the Price Canyon oilfield.

Freeport-McMoRan, which owned the oilfield before selling it to Sentinel Peak Resources in October, applied to DOGGR for an aquifer exemption that would allow drilling and reinjection to continue. In addition, Freeport filed a project proposal with SLO County to expand the oilfield with 450 new wells.

Last year, DOGGR forwarded the aquifer exemption application to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for consideration. The Center for Biological Diversity believes DOGGR needed to go through the CEQA process first. Last May, the EPA asked DOGGR for more information to justify the aquifer exemption.

Local group Protect SLO Water is planning a rally outside the courthouse at 8 a.m. June 15 before the hearing. SLO Mayor Heidi Harmon, Grover Beach City Councilmember Debbie Peterson, and Pismo Beach City Councilmember Marcia Guthrie are expected to participate in the rally, according to a press release.

Golden-Krasner noted that the shift in priorities at the EPA with the new federal administration makes her case more essential.

"California has been holding itself up as the beacon of environmental protection against the new federal administration," Golden-Krasner said. "We're really looking to California right now to be that protection, including not sacrificing groundwater for the oil industry without at least really looking at the risks."


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