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The Bakersfield California: State still waiting for Shell to act

The Bakersfield Californian graphic

Water table below Bakersfield refinery remains contaminated
BY STACEY SHEPARD, Californian staff writer
[email protected] | Friday, Jun 29 2007 11:15 PM
Last Updated: Friday, Jun 29 2007 11:18 PM

Shell Oil shut down a soil cleanup operation at the Rosedale Highway refinery two years ago and hasn’t restarted it despite repeated requests from the state, according to documents obtained from the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

Shell said the shutdown was temporary while it searched for a new power source to run the system after selling the facility to Big West of California, a subsidiary of Flying J, in March 2005.

But it’s been more than two years, and the system remains off.

The shutdown had stalled efforts to clean up extensive groundwater contamination beneath the refinery, state officials said, allowing pollutants like MTBE, gasoline, diesel and benzene to seep further into the water table.

The refinery has been the site of numerous releases of oil and other petroleum products into the ground going back to the 1980s.

The worst, documents show, was a pipeline leak in 1987 that seeped an estimated 2 million gallons of partially refined fuel into the ground. More than a dozen spills have happened since then. Four have occurred since Big West bought the refinery in 2005.

The most recent was reported two weeks ago.

Big West continues to search for the cause of that release, which was detected when a monitoring well showed significant amounts of an oily substance had begun to accumulate on top of groundwater. Flying J, the parent company, now suspects the substance may be a result of a past leak that has finally reached the water table, which begins about 50 feet below the ground.

Meanwhile, the water quality control board has been battling with Shell to continue remediating past contamination at the facility.

Correspondence between the water board and Shell shows the company has missed two state deadlines to reactivate a system designed to remove contamination from the soil and prevent it from seeping into the groundwater.

“We’d like to see it back online soon because it was effective at removing product,” said Russell Walls, a senior engineer with the Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board.

The system removed nearly 2 million gallons of petroleum product since it was installed around 2000, Walls said.

Letters from the state agency also show Shell has tried to avoid requests to look into and clean up other pockets of groundwater contamination at the facility.

Timeline for cleanup

A Shell official said Friday that the company takes its environmental responsibility seriously.

The contamination plumes are contained despite a shutdown of the remediation system, said Stan Mays, a Shell spokesman.

“The effect is there’s no movement of the plume,” Mays said. “It’s stabilizing.”

The company has all the equipment in place to supply power to the system, he said, but it’s awaiting completion of additional work by Pacific Gas and Electric.

A PG&E official was unable to confirm this Friday.

The water quality control board has required Shell to provide weekly updates on the progress of the system after the company missed deadlines of October 2006 and February 2007 to have the system running.

The most recent update from Shell said the cleanup operation should resume sometime in July.

Who’s responsible

Shell is responsible for cleaning up most of the groundwater contamination at the site even though some was caused by previous owners of the facility.

The refinery has had six owners dating back to when it was built in the 1930s. In the late 1990s it was owned jointly by Shell and Texaco, but Shell later took full ownership and retained responsibility for the contamination, even after it sold the facility to Flying J in 2005.

Pollution levels in some areas beneath the refinery remain far above state standards.

The state required the installation of a remediation system when the plumes began to migrate beyond the refinery’s property line in the late 1990s.

MTBE was detected in a well supplying a nearby trailer park. Shell later bought the trailer park and shut it down. Four other private wells supplying water to businesses and other property in the area were contaminated from the refinery’s groundwater, according to documents. Shell eventually destroyed the wells and paid for the properties to be hooked up to city water lines.

Since then, no other wells supplying water to the public have been affected.

The closest public well to the refinery is city-owned, located just a few hundred yards from the refinery’s northern boundary, near Vista West High School.

Florn Core, the city’s water resources manager, said contamination has never been detected because the well draws water from deep in the aquifer at about 400 feet. The worst pockets of groundwater contamination beneath the refinery surpasses depths of 200 feet, but portions of the plume that have migrated off-site are much shallower.

Still, Core said, the state has a duty to make sure the site is remediated.

“I would think it would be incumbent on the water quality control board to get that back up and running,” Core said. “If there’s groundwater contamination, it needs to be cleaned up.”

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