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Cher Gilmore: Ignorance is not bliss

Posted: January 16, 2014 2:00 a.m.
Updated: January 16, 2014 2:00 a.m.

Fracking has captured the headlines recently, but another, less well-known technique for extracting oil trapped in rock cavities deep underground is increasingly being used in California and is an even bigger threat to health and the environment.

“Acidizing,” as it is called, involves injecting hydrofluoric acid (HF) at low pressure into an oil well and the reservoir rocks to dissolve sediment blocking the flow of oil.

Afterward, the used acid and sediments are removed by a process called backflush. Often used to extract the last bit of oil from old wells, acidizing is increasingly being applied in California to new wells – at much higher volumes of acid.

Commonly used in oil refineries to produce high-octane gasoline, HF is one of the most dangerous industrial chemicals in use, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The Center for American Progress lists it as the second most dangerous chemical that could be used in terrorist attacks. It can cause severe burns to the skin and eyes, permanently damage lungs in ways not immediately painful or apparent, and cause death if inhaled, swallowed, or absorbed through the skin even in minute amounts and left untreated.

Worse, HF is extremely volatile at low temperatures. At 67.1 degrees F, it becomes a vapor cloud that doesn’t dissipate, stays near the ground, and can travel long distances. This volatility greatly amplifies the risks of a spill to any nearby populations.

We have data on HF used in refineries; little or none about its use in California oilfields. A 2013 survey of 50 U.S. oil refineries by the United Steelworkers union found that “over a five-year period, the refineries in the study experienced 131 HF releases or near misses and committed hundreds of violations of the OSHA rule regulating highly hazardous operations.” As many as 360,000 Los Angeles residents could be exposed to HF by a leak at the

Torrance or Wilmington refineries, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Regarding local risks, Kim Nibarger, a United Steelworkers health and safety specialist observes, “You have uncounted numbers of trucks moving HF around the state. It’s unclear whether the workers are trained in proper safety protocols, whether local first responders are prepared, or whether anyone is prepared for a potentially lethal accident of significant proportions.”

Given the extreme hazards of HF, is anyone looking out for public health and safety? Unfortunately not. Acidizing is completely unregulated at present. Senator Fran Pavley’s SB4, now law as of January 1, 2014, mandates that permits must be obtained for both fracking and acidizing, onsite water quality testing must be done before and after drilling, and a wastewater disposal plan produced. However, the legislation doesn’t actually establish regulations for either process.

Critical questions citizens should be asking are: Why aren’t cities (including Santa Clarita) regulating – or banning – HF within their city limits if the state isn’t? What concentrations of HF are being used at what pressures, in what locations, and how often? Where does it get diluted (on site or trucked in from elsewhere)? What’s the risk of HF entering the water table over time when a rock-dissolving chemical is injected into rock? And what happens to those hundreds of gallons of ‘backflush’ laced with hydrofluoric acid?

Coming to an oil well near you

In fact, acidizing is already here in Santa Clarita. Because of the new law requiring permits, we know that wells have already been acidized in the Placerita Canyon area, among others. Further, we know that some of these wells are less than a mile from Golden Valley High School, the Friendly Valley senior community, and other residential areas.

What we don’t know is how much hydrofluoric acid was/is being used, whether or not it will seep into our water table in the long run (30 to 40 percent of the water we drink is groundwater), or how the oil companies are disposing of their toxic waste.

What can we do as citizens to change this situation? Let our mayor and city council know that it isn’t acceptable to expose our community to such hazards, elect new city council members who will pledge to do something about it, stay informed by using the public records at the web site, talk to your neighbors, and keep speaking up whenever an opportunity presents itself.

As RL Miller facetiously asks at the end of her article “Why Oil Companies Want to Drop Acid in California,” “Truckin’ and trippin’ the bad acid throughout California’s fractured geology – what could go wrong?”

Cher Gilmore lives in Santa Clarita and is a member of the Santa Clarita Chapter of Citizens Climate Lobby.



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