Downtown McKittrick. The town of 115 people is about 6 miles south of where more than 1 million gallons of a mixture of oil and water have seeped from a well that Chevron says it was trying to reseal months ago. (Alex Hall/KQED)
As Dave Noerr drove his truck through the Cymric Oil Field, sun gleamed on hundreds of oil-pumping units plunging into the ground and pulling back up again in slow motion. Workers drove white pickup trucks on private roads owned by the different petroleum companies operating here in California’s oil country, while large pipes snaking through the desert hills carried oil and water to processing facilities.
Here in Kern County — an hour’s drive west of Bakersfield — over 1 million gallons of a mixture of oil and water have seeped from a well that Chevron says it was attempting to reseal. The incident was first detected in May.
Noerr, the mayor of nearby Taft and an oil man himself, pointed in the direction of the spill.
“Due north, all up in those valleys, it’s up in there,” Noerr said Tuesday, motioning toward a location hidden in a sea of oil machinery and sagebrush.
Even though the oil spill is the largest in California since 1990, the site is accessible solely via a private road manned by a security guard. If you live or work nearby, chances are you can’t see the oil spill, you can’t smell it and oil is not in the water. Noerr is confident Chevron will keep it that way.
“Nobody spills anything, including hydrocarbons, on purpose,” Noerr said. “The largest group of people that understand the benefits, and yet also understand the potential negatives, are those people that live here and work in this industry.”
Six miles down the road is McKittrick, population 115. The town has one school, a fire station, a small cluster of dusty houses and mobile homes, and several businesses — including a mini-mart and Mike and Annie’s McKittrick Hotel, Penny Bar and Cafe, the local lunch spot for oil workers at lunchtime.
Tom Whitteker, a crane operator who has worked in the oil fields for 50 years, ate at Mike and Annie’s earlier this week as the other men in work boots, hats and collared shirts — most of them oil workers who live in Taft or Bakersfield — dug into their cheeseburgers and burritos.
“People are anti-oil, anti-oil companies,” Whitteker said. “I think it’s ridiculous because our world runs on oil. All the plastic in your car. The baggies you put your lunch in. Your shoes.”
Some of the men having lunch said they had not heard about an oil spill.
Sabrina Ballou, who works at the diner, toasted bread and poured gravy over biscuits in the kitchen.
When asked if she had heard about the oil spill, Ballou replied over the sizzle of hamburger meat on the grill: “I’ve heard about it, haven’t seen it. They’ve got it handled. It’s what they do around here. Nothing new for us.”
“They take it pretty serious around here,” said Ballou, whose husband drives a vacuum truck. “They try not to mess up the environment.”
‘You Don’t Really Think a Lot About It’
Oil-pumping units and Chevron’s facilities can be seen from the playground at McKittrick Elementary School. The school’s logo displays a yellow cartoon oil tower.
“Even if the kids were here, it’s not something that we would be concerned about,” said Barry Koerner, superintendent of McKittrick Elementary School, as he cleaned out his office in preparation for the new school year.
“Out here, you don’t really think a lot about it. A lot of people, I think, picture it like Hawaii with a magma flow,” Koerner said, chuckling. “And it’s not like that. It’s not like it’s going to come overtake the school.”
When Gov. Gavin Newsom traveled to McKittrick on Wednesday to see the cleanup, Koerner let the governor hold his press conference on school grounds.
Newsom called himself an environmentalist but said he doesn’t want to leave oil families behind as the state moves away from fossil fuels — noting he wanted to act “thoughtfully.”
“I’m passionate about low carbon green growth,” Newsom told reporters in the school’s library. “I want California to continue to lead internationally. I’m taking the baton from a very progressive governor, but I want to take further steps than the previous administration in this space.”
More on the Kern County Oil Spill
Koerner guessed most locals didn’t know Newsom was in town until after he had left and the story of his appearance made the news. Koerner said he had not received official notice or information about the spill from the oil company and thought he might not be the only one.
A spokesman representing Chevron and a number of state and local government agencies said McKittrick residents have not been contacted, but a website with information about the spill was launched. Chevron also reached out to local leaders, said another spokesman, who works for the oil company.
“Unless there’s a flyer (at the) post office or they have a relative that works out there in the cleanup, I’m going to guess they probably don’t even know about it,” Koerner said.
In fact, the spill might end up benefiting some families, he added.
“For some people it’s job security, 'cause they belong to a cleanup service. So now they’ve got a call that they’ve got to get out there and put in some overtime, make a little extra money.”
Down the street from the school, oil worker Randel Allen and his cousin, Brandon Edwards, were working on a motorcycle outside the trailer where they live. Unlike others in McKittrick, they had heard about the spill — on Facebook.
“It’s oil fields,” said Edwards. “They got spills out here all the time. But I don’t even know how big it is, like visually, looking at it, so I can’t really say.”
When asked if he was concerned, Edwards responded, “Not really. Look where we live. There’s oil fields and oil all around us.”
Allen expressed some worries and said Chevron should be able to clean up its mess.
“What if it was to (happen) right here in one of these ditches close to town? I mean, what are they going to do?” Allen said. “Thank God it’s away from town.”