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Is Our Food Being Grown with Wastewater from Oil Wells

This week, our friends at the Environmental Working Group released an important petition, asking California state water boards and Governor Jerry Brown to halt the frightening practice of watering crops for human consumption with wastewater from oil and gas drilling.

Here’s the deal: Under current law, farms in California’s Central Valley are actually allowed to use oil and gas wastewater, called produced water, for irrigation. It’s important to distinguish that produced water (which is a byproduct of drilling) is different than fracking wastewater, which is banned from use in irrigation outright due to its dangerous contents—because of its known toxicity, drillers are required to disclose the chemicals in fracking water, while many components of produced water are proprietary. That secrecy represents a major problem for consumers, as crops grown with this practice include almonds, pistachios, citrus, grapes, carrots, beans, tomatoes, and potatoes, and there’s no way of distinguishing which ones were grown with wastewater once they arrive in the supermarket.

Irrigation with oil and gas wastewater is not new—though it’s only ever been done on a relatively small number of farms, it’s been in practice for more than thirty years, an allowance the water board justifies by emphasizing that “no studies have shown that irrigating food crops with produced water poses any threat to public health.” Groups like EWG have countered that what limited testing has been done is flawed and that significantly more time and study is required to understand the critical question for health: Whether the hazardous chemicals we know are present in produced wastewater could make their way into the edible part of the crop. For a drought-stricken state like California, recycling water is a critical part of a healthy water system overall—a system that can only be successful if we hold wastewater treatment to high health standards. Join us in asking Governor Brown and the Central Valley’s water board to stop this practice until adequate research on the human health risks has been conducted.

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