SierraClublogoThe Sierra Club and The Cornucopia Institute have formally called upon the USDA to tighten federal regulatory standards to prohibit the use of “produced water,” which is wastewater from oil and gas drilling operations, in organic food production. The two organizations have simultaneously sent nearly 30,000 signatures to the agency calling for a ban on this potentially toxic water source.

The environmental group and the organic food and farming watchdog pointed to research that shows that this wastewater, a by-product of gas and oil exploration and production, is contaminated with toxic chemicals, radioactive salts, heavy metals and hydrocarbons, even when treated and diluted.

“Consumers buy organic produce to support sustainable agriculture that doesn’t use toxic chemicals,” states Alexander Rony, Sierra Club’s Senior Digital Innovation Campaigner.  “Oil wastewater puts the entire organic system at risk. If you can’t be sure what’s in your organic fruits and vegetables, what food can you trust?”

“Because it commonly contains similar contaminants, spreading sewage sludge is explicitly banned in organic production,” said Mark A. Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst at The Cornucopia Institute. “To keep organic food as pure as possible it’s important that we promptly promulgate regulations that will ban the use of potentially hazardous wastewater in organic production.”

New regulations are especially critical in California, where this practice has become particularly compelling to parched water districts. In the San Joaquin Valley, oil and gas drilling occurs near – and sometimes on – active farmland. With continued drought forecast across the West, more farmers are likely to turn to irrigation water from oil and gas production.

One example is the oil giant Chevron supplying California’s Cawelo Water District with treated, produced wastewater from its oil fields since the mid-1990s. Several major farming operations and food brands are among the water district’s customers, including  Sunview which sells organic grapes and raisins as well as other produce.

Fracking Wastewater Pit
Source: Faces of Fracking

“Recycled and treated oil or gas wastewater used for irrigation can be contaminated by a variety of toxic chemicals, including industrial solvents such as acetone and methylene chloride, and hydrocarbons (oil components),” said Jerome Rigot, PhD, a staff scientist at Cornucopia.

Rigot continued, “As an example, testing by Scott Smith, chief scientist for the advocacy group Water Defense, of the irrigation water provided by Chevron was shown to contain a multitude of contaminants, ranging from several polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), various volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, xylenes and acetone, methylene chloride, several hydrocarbons, high concentration of sodium chloride (table salt), other halide salts (bromide, fluoride, chloride), heavy metals, and radioactive metals (2 radium isotopes). Many of these compounds are potential and known carcinogens.” Chevron denied using acetone or methylene chloride in its oil extraction process; however, the company refused to disclose the fluids used in drilling or well maintenance.

Fossil fuel industry lobbyists have succeeded in preventing the public from knowing what chemicals are being used in the oil and gas production wells. Although California has tougher disclosure requirements, current testing requirements are viewed by environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, as wholly inadequate, focusing primarily on issues that could affect crop growth, such as salinity and boron, instead of risks to the environment, animals, and human health.

“This is a wake-up call that the organic standards need to be tightened,” added Kastel. “While we are waiting for the USDA to take action, a little research to know where your organic food is coming from will pay dividends.”

Cornucopia states that the vast majority of family-scale organic farms around the country do not use any questionable or potentially hazardous irrigation water. The families that farm these operations are eating the food out of their own fields, unlike the owners of large industrial operations, who commonly produce both organic and conventional produce, and which typically work under contract for a major agribusiness.

“By eating as close to home as possible, and buying food that is labeled both local and certified organic, consumers are getting the freshest and most nutritious food possible, as well as protecting their families from products made with crops grown by industrial-scale operations that are more likely to use unsafe practices,” said Kastel. “For larger national brands, consumers can contact companies and ask if their irrigation districts use any processed wastewater.”

Current organic standards already prevent petroleum-based fertilizers, sewage sludge-based fertilizers, and synthetic pesticides from being applied to organic crops. “Considering the health concerns and lack of clear science, a ban on treated oil and gas wastewater is prudent to protect consumers as well as the integrity of the organic food label,” concludes the Sierra Club’s Rony.

The Sierra Club is the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization — with more than two million members and supporters. Our successes range from protecting millions of acres of wilderness to helping pass the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. More recently, we’ve made history by leading the charge to move away from the dirty fossil fuels that cause climate disruption and toward a clean energy economy.

The Cornucopia Institute is engaged in research and educational activities supporting the ecological principles and economic wisdom underlying sustainable and organic agriculture. Through research and investigations on agricultural and food issues, The Cornucopia Institute provides needed information to family farmers, consumers, stakeholders involved in the good food movement, and the media.

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