Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times published Water Defense’s results of testing it has conducted on recycled oil field wastewater used to irrigate crops in California. Over a two-year time period Water Defense’s Chief Scientist, Scott Smith, collected samples from treated water sold to the Cawelo Water District. The results? The water contained powerful industrial solvents toxic to humans—higher than he’d seen previously at oil spill sites. Industry officials and the water district told the Times they think the water is safe for crops, citing that they are complying with testing requirements.
In a video released today, Scott takes us to the meeting point of the freshwater and the recycled water for irrigation. Scott told us the tar balls and oil slicked water he saw were just like what he witnessed from the Gulf oil spill. We talked to him about how this practice has been monitored, and what this news means for advocates for our food and water.
Darcey Rakestraw: You’re obviously passionate about exposing water contamination from the oil industry. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in this work?
Scott Smith: The world is running out of clean water and we must educate millions of people quickly if we are to protect our water resources for future generations. I am passionate about diagnosing water contamination problems and solving them with environmentally responsible solutions. The real problem in California and many other states stems from elected officials and regulators not serving the best interests of the people they represent, allowing the oil industry to pollute while refusing to adequately test the water or enforce proper testing.
My life and business were wiped out in oil contaminated flood waters in 2006. When I realized that there was no effective technology to remove oil from water, I became obsessed with developing a technology that could. I developed one based on biomimicry, which was adopted in the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster in 2010. My invention helped preserve and protect the sensitive wetlands of the Gulf Coast.
While working side by side with fishermen in the Gulf of Mexico, I witnessed people getting very ill from the oil contaminated water and yet the water was being declared free of oil using testing methods that were incomplete and gamed. Believe it or not, it was the elected officials and regulators that were gaming the test results.
When I discovered this, I felt obligated to educate the rest of the world in order to drive changes in water testing. I made it my life’s mission and developed new testing methodologies that could not be easily gamed and could detect the full gamut of chemicals in the water, from oil and related chemicals to endocrine disrupting metals and metalloids. You can’t solve any problem until you identify the problem.
DR: How did you join up with Water Defense?
SS: In 2013 during the ExxonMobil Pegasus pipeline oil spill in Mayflower, Arkansas, I was testing and identifying oil and chemicals downstream while the regulators and elected officials were declaring the water safe and clear of contamination. I ended up on a few YouTube channels and in the news. It was at this time, John Pratt and Mark Ruffalo of Water Defense found me, reached out to me on Twitter, and set up a meeting with me later in the year. Shortly after that they asked me to join them at Water Defense. We have done a lot of work since then on putting together a system that will empower people and communities to know how their water is being harmed by polluters. Mark told me this was where the environmental movement was weak. They did not have good, easy to deploy, independent and relatively inexpensive water testing. Most polluted communities had to rely on state agencies or the polluters to get test results. We saw in Dimock, Pennsylvania how the state agencies were withholding test results to keep from embarrassing themselves. They did not want to take responsibility for the contamination that was happening on their watch.
In all my travels I have come to see that this is the norm. We came to realize that we must let data lead the debate and that we were not getting great public water data. This is a game changer. Water does not lie. We can’t solve the problem without knowing what the problem is. Now we are armed with credible data. We can give that data openly to the public. Now they can debate with real science that is free from political contamination. They can literally take control of their own water quality. That changes everything. We have to put polluters on notice. We are watching you. We are there. The jig is up. They cannot be expected to regulate themselves and the entire way we monitor water on the state level could use real updating.
DR: How did you decide to focus on this issue (testing recycled wastewater used on California crops), and how did you commence collecting and testing the samples cited in the Times article?
SS: Initially, a few people concerned about the issue contacted me. They wanted to know if the recycled oil wastewater sold to farmers and used in the irrigation of crops (i.e. almonds, tangerines, grapes, etc.) being promoted by the fossil fuel industry and state officials was free of chemicals of concern. I always viewed California as a leader in protecting the environment and quite frankly could not even believe what people were telling me. I thought that in no way could it even be possible that oil wastewater could be used to irrigate the food we eat everyday throughout the country. Since the Gulf oil spill in 2010, I have been to over 50 disasters where I have conducted water testing. So, I agreed to go to Kern County, California to investigate. Needless to say, I was absolutely shocked when I found myself surrounded by food crops with the smell of oil coming off the irrigation water. It was worse than what I smelled during the BP Gulf oil spill. When the test results came back we found dangerous and toxic chemicals in the irrigation canal system. This water was presumably already treated. The levels of these toxic chemicals exceeded what I have tested in official oil spill disasters. But this was not even an official oil disaster in Kern County. This was irrigation water to which workers and the community were exposed. If this were any other industry or a company not involved in oil production, regulators would have stepped in and fined the responsible party and/or shut them down. It’s incredible.
DR: Were you alarmed by the findings, or did you expect the wastewater to show these levels of contamination?
SS: I found it incomprehensible that not only does the State of California allow this to go on, but that municipalities within the State actually brag about the practice of using oil wastewater for irrigation with incomplete and inadequate water testing.
DR: In a video on the Water Defense website, you talk about how companies and local officials typically take “instantaneous” water samples from the surface to test for contamination, but your testing involves testing the entire water column over time. Can you expand on why this approach is better?
SS: The instantaneous water testing is equivalent to a split second picture or a still camera. Water Defense cumulative water testing, on the other hand, is essentially a video security camera that monitors what exactly is flowing through the water over time. It is not an issue of Water Defense testing being better per se, but more complete in that if the chemicals are in the water, cumulative water testing will find them. While the instantaneous testing is helpful, and has its place in the toolbox of water testing, you can easily get a non-detect for that split second in the water when there are actually dangerous chemicals present. Instantaneous testing is subject to variability versus cumulative testing, and this can lead to false non-detects for instantaneous testing. Lastly, if testing isn’t ongoing and independent, it is impossible to know what is in the water. The good thing about our testing is that it’s very easy to deploy and very difficult to foul. We also happen to be independent. We are just trying to get the truth out to people and let them decide for themselves. People deserve to be told the truth. We believe water doesn’t lie. When testing is given priority then we can solve the problems.
DR: What did you think about the response of water officials quoted in the article? They seemed to downplay the findings.
SS: I really feel for the water officials as they are in a tough spot. They are confused and scared. I look forward to working with them in a cooperative and transparent way to preserve and protect the precious and declining water in California. There is no reason to be confused or scared because we can all work together to monitor the contamination and stop it. This doesn’t have to be this way. But someone has to be responsible here. Someone has got to oversee what is happening here. There seems to be a huge lack of oversight. It may cost more money on the front end, but when people start getting sick it’s only going to cost that much more. We don’t want to wait for the worst-case scenario, when all it takes is a little bit of common sense to know that if you aren’t careful you will be harming people.
DR: What other projects are on the horizon for you and Water Defense that you’d like to tell us about?
SS: I have never been more optimistic and excited about the future because it is our plan to make Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing a common thing. This is not rocket science. The Water Defense testers can be deployed by anyone. They are pretty much fool proof. We want to empower millions of people to be citizen scientists and monitor all the waterways in the country. In a few months, we plan to formally launch the “We Are There” campaign. It will be focused on taking action in the field with citizen scientists to deploy Water Defense open-source cumulative water testing to find water contamination. We want to bring people together to remove and stop the contamination. I have also recently consulted with the EPA on the proposed changes to oil and chemical spill regulations. This would include adoption of open-source cumulative water testing along side the grab sampling being used today.
The good news is each person that reads this can take part in changing the laws to better preserve and protect our water. By writing to his or her elected officials and demanding they contact the EPA to support these changes, people will be doing a lot to keep this type of thing from continuing to happen.
To learn more about Water Defense, visit their website, waterdefense.org.
To take action to protect California’s water, sign our petition to Governor Jerry Brown asking him to ban fracking.