State Says It Has No Idea How Long It Will Take to Clean Up Chevron's Kern County Oil Spill

A still image from July 28, 2019, drone video showing work to clean up an oil spill near a Chevron well in Kern County.  (TJ Frantz via YouTube)

State regulators say they don't know how long it will take for crews to clean up contaminated soil from a Kern County creek bed in the wake of the biggest California oil spill in decades.

While the massive release of crude petroleum from a Chevron oil well near the town of McKittrick seems to have ended, the timeline for hauling away soil contaminated by the spill is unclear.

Chevron's Kern County Spill
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"The full extent of the required site remediation is not known at this time and will be fully scoped with appropriate regulatory agencies," Eric Laughlin, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, said in an email Thursday.

State officials say the flow of crude oil and water stopped on Aug. 2. Chevron says 1.34 million gallons of oil and water have been recovered in the area since the spill began in early May. About 30 percent of that total, about 400,000 gallons, was petroleum.

For weeks, contractors have been hauling away contaminated soil from the site and taking it to San Joaquin Valley dumps -- including two facilities that handle hazardous waste. Recently posted drone video (below) suggests the job is far from complete.

The footage gives a detailed view of the roughly 1,000 feet of stream bed that was fouled after oil began flowing to the surface near a damaged Chevron well in the Cymric oil field, 35 miles west of Bakersfield. The most recent footage, from earlier this week, shows heavy equipment continuing to work on an extensive section of the oil-soaked channel.

A Kern County environmental activist called the video "eye-opening".

"This just shows a different perspective of ... what we're dealing with here locally," Gustavo Aguirre Jr., a Bakersfield project coordinator at Central California Environmental Justice Network, said after viewing the footage. "You see the flow of this toxic crude and wastewater. God knows what it has in it."


The video shows the course of a stream that flows down from the eastern slopes of the Temblor Range toward the valley below. That part of California is dry, with the nearby town of Taft getting an average of about 6 inches of rain a year. But the region occasionally sees heavy rain, which would send runoff down the stream, including through the area polluted by Chevron's Cymric spill.

Laughlin, the DFW spokesman, was asked whether state officials were concerned about well operations in the area in the event of strong rains in the area.

"Chevron has contingency plans in place to handle heavy rains," he said in his email.

As far as the job ahead, Laughlin said crews will work to remove the contaminated soil "until clean dirt is observed."

Workers have taken most of the soil that's been removed from the site to the McKittrick Waste Landfill, Laughlin said. Some of the material has been taken to two hazardous waste dumps -- Clean Harbors, west of the town of Buttonwillow, and Waste Management's King County facility in Kettleman Hills.

Aguirre raised concerns that oil from the accident was being dumped closer to San Joaquin Valley communities.

"It becomes part of this bigger problem. You take one toxic substances from one location to another," he said.

For months state officials and Chevron have said that the spill did not affect wildlife in the area. They said that crews had worked to keep birds and animals from the area.

But last week they said that had changed.

"An oiled bird, a lesser nighthawk, was recovered from the site on Aug. 14. It was transported to a wildlife care center, where it later had to be euthanized," the Office of Spill Prevention and Response posted on the agency's site.

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Chevron has said the spill's probable cause is related to its work to seal off a damaged and abandoned oil well. The company said its attempts to confirm the source of the original leak and shut it down unleashed even higher flows.

The state's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources issued two notices of violation and ordered Chevron to "take all measures" to stop the flow and prevent a recurrence of the releases. Chevron has appealed the state's order.

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