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Advice

Letter to the Editor: Oil/Gas Companies Reap Benefits of California’s Corruption

The web site of California's Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board bears a photograph of Governor Jerry Brown, and the motto "Protecting California's Water."

If truth were to replace hype, that motto would read "Protecting California's Oil and Gas Industries."

The never-ending accumulation of moral and environmental degradation thrust on the citizens of this state by its governor - that PR magician cloaked in the robes of a forward-looking progressive who asks us to recognize the threat posed by climate change, and who recommends committing future state executives to environmentally sound policies - that never-ending accumulation is now piled even higher, since - is this any longer a surprise? - still more putrid agency misbehavior has been added to the history of Jerry Brown's maladministration.

"Despite a finding that unlined wastewater pits near Kern County's Edison oil field have contaminated groundwater, ... The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board ignored its own staff recommendation and voted to let Water Management Co. continue disposing of excess wastewater by spraying it on hillsides for another 2 1/2 years.

"The board's staff report cited high levels of salt and boron accumulated in the unpermitted spray field, which could make its way into nearby Cottonwood Creek and eventually the Kern River. It recommended Valley Water be ordered to cease the practice by Aug. 15.

"But Thursday's vote gave the company until January 2018 to come into full compliance.

"Clay Rodgers, assistant executive officer of the water board's Fresno office argued ... that the spray field should be shut down immediately and told the board that the company's 27 waste pits in the Race Track Hill area were the source of 'significant' contamination.

"The company's experts ... disputed how far the contaminated plume had traveled and whether ... its slow progression presented an imminent threat. ... according to the company, cutting by half the amount of water they could store would reduce oil production among the companies that rely on its facilities.

"Rodgers acknowledged that the water board staff had failed for decades to properly regulate the sites." (Los Angeles Times, July 31, 2015)

Have we heard this before? And from every California regulatory agency?

18th century playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan memorably had one of his characters observe: "Fertilizer does no good in a heap, but a little spread around works miracles all over."

That has become the byword of the Brown administration: fling perfumed manure to the media but, absent the glare of national scrutiny, spread actual contaminant filth into the earth, air and water used by the state's citizens - in many cases, its poorest.

Does any sophisticated person believe that the Central Valley Water Board acted without the governor's knowledge and approval? Does anyone believe the universal, constant failure of the state's regulatory agencies to monitor or control the behavior of oil/gas conglomerates - or the universal, constant failure of these agencies to enforce federal/state environmental law with regard to these companies - is a result of rogue behavior by agency heads? Does anyone believe these agency heads are - one and all - incompetents whose failures to do their jobs pass unnoticed by a governor too busy with other matters? Does anyone believe these agency heads are all simply swamped by duties too difficult for decent human beings to manage, while the official who appointed them wrings his hands in helpless confusion?

Agency heads follow their marching orders. They know too - as does anyone who has the interest to inquire - that in 2011 Governor Brown fired Conservation Dep't. Director Derek Chernow because Chernow would not accede to the governor's directive to violate environmental law by giving oil/gas companies drilling permits absent the rigorous scrutiny required by the Environmental Protection Agency. (Los Angeles Times, Jan. 12, 2012)

The director of the state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources knew this when his agency looked the other way while oil companies illegally injected contaminated wastewater into wells drilled through aquifers containing clean water.

The Water Quality Control Board knew this when it remained silent while oil/gas conglomerates poured toxic "flowback" material into hundreds of illegal - often unlined - pits where the contamination could migrate to aquifers used for drinking and/or irrigation for crop lands.

The Department of Toxic Substances Control knew this when it permitted Exide Technologies to operate for decades without a permanent license while that company racked up dozens of serious environmental law violations: arsenic emissions that posed increased cancer risk to 110,000 citizens in Vernon, CA; lead contamination that has infiltrated the soil of up to 10,000 area homes.

Following his dismissal of Director Chernow, Governor Brown appointed Mark Nechodom, who saw to it that fracking permits were readily distributed, resulting in massive drilling throughout the state, primarily  in Kern County. Unencumbered by any effective regulation, wells sprouted up close to schools, homes, farms and orchards. Poisonous flowback liquids were dumped into open ponds, "flared" (burned off) into the air, expelling noxious fumes for miles around, giving schoolchildren and their parents, uncles and aunts - mostly Latino - severe headaches, nosebleeds, asthma, seizures, skin lesions and possibly cancer.

From these working families 50,000 petitioned the governor to come see for himself what his policies had done to them; asked that he ban fracking or at least institute regulations that would protect their health. Brown ignored their pleas, issuing from the statehouse a press release to the effect that fracking has no ill effects.

Environmental activist Bill McKibben, in a recent Op-Ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, said of Brown's fracking policies, "It's as if the governor banned smoking in California but turned the Central Valley over to growing tobacco."

McKibben ignored the millions of dollars contributed by oil/gas producers to the campaign coffers and favorite ballot measures of Jerry Brown; I don't. McKibben called the governor's behavior a "blind spot." I call it corruption.

We in California are fortunate to have some true environmental champions among our state legislators: State Senator Fran Pavely (D-Agoura Hills) and our own Hannah-Beth Jackson and Das Williams among them. Like the legendary Sisyphus, they keep pushing uphill, against massive oil/gas conglomerate opposition, the most effective environmental legislation they can achieve. But their efforts to secure from Governor Brown even a meeting - or a direct answer to their appeals that he take specific action to address these widespread regulatory failures - are ignored.

The media often trumpet Governor Brown's highly-publicized recommendations to address climate change: restricted vehicle fuel use, cleaner heating fuels, increased amount of electricity obtained from renewable sources, etc. But few seem to notice that these Brown-sponsored policies do not include a ban on greenhouse-gas-emitting unconventional drilling; few seem to notice that the proposals are mandated to be implemented by 2030, long after Brown has left office. In other words, they commit a government other than his own to fulfillment of these far-seeing provisions!

It's unfortunate that many Democrats here seem not to have the character to face up to this notable corruption by one of their own - though its evidence stares us in the face. It's unfortunate, too, that many Republicans, who dislike the governor and enjoy any criticism of him, stay silent on his failure faithfully to execute the law because they love the result of his being in bed with oil/gas companies.

There is, however, one state official who is standing up for those who demand of their government lawful conduct: attorney and Lancaster Mayor Rex Parris.

"[Dep't. of Conservation Director Mark} Nechodom was named this week in a federal lawsuit on behalf of a group of Kern County farmers who allege that Brown, the oil and gas division and others conspired with oil companies to allow the illegal injections and to create a more lax regulatory environment for energy firms.

"Nechodon ... resigned Thursday. ... The lawsuit was filed under federal racketeering statutes and claims the conspiracy deprived Kern County farmers of access to clean water.

"Attorney Rex Parris, whose firm filed the lawsuit, said in a written statement ... that the case alleges a broad and complex conspiracy involving other officials. 'We are not surprised that Nechodom resigned a day after the filing of this lawsuit. ... We are confident he is just one of many resignations to come.'" (L.A. Times, June 6, 2015)

"[Parris] has won several multimillion-dollar jury verdicts for clients, and ... was lead trial counsel in a civil defamation lawsuit filed by five former employees of Guess, Inc. that resulted in a $370-million judgement against company co-founder Georges Marciano." (L.A. Times, Sept. 20, 2009)

I am not alone.

William Smithers
Santa Barbara

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