Irv Beiman: Santa Barbara County Is at Risk from Bad Air and Water | Opinions

By Irv Beiman | February 16, 2019 | 11:30 a.m.

Bad air and water kill people, slowly.

At the beginning of China’s economic transformation in the early 1990s, people were dying of old age in their 80s and 90s. After 20 years of massive economic transformation with little to no pollution control, people were dying in their 50s and 60s.

Santa Barbara County is facing a similar risk that will damage our residents’ health.

Ron Fink’s Feb. 5 column, “Seeking an Issue — Continuing to Relive the Oil Spill,” was a disturbing attack on the character, intelligence and intention of residents who are deeply concerned about the risks that oil extraction poses for our county. Mr. Fink attacks people rather than dealing with the essential issues of aquifer contamination and hazardous air pollution.

Let’s get real and practical about this. Aera Energy, ERG Resources and PetroRock Energy, all limited liability companies under cover from the larger oil companies that own them, are proposing to use extreme extraction methods to penetrate our groundwater to reach oil that is deep underground in Cat Canyon east of Orcutt.

That oil is so thick that it requires steam injection and acidizing to bring it to the surface, along with millions of gallons of toxic liquid that must then be sent back underground via wastewater injection wells. The insanity of exposing this potential risk to our drinking water is obvious, but not addressed by Mr. Fink.

Halliburton, which was run by Dick Cheney before he was elected vice president, managed to make the specific oil extraction chemicals a “trade secret.” As a result, we don’t have a lot of information about the chemicals used, except we do know that benzene is commonly a chemical component of oil extraction. It is highly dangerous and carcinogenic at any amount.

We can, however, measure the air quality around the oil fields. This is not routinely done except in response to a complaint.

I recently learned that hazardous air pollution is a real current risk in Cat Canyon. I accompanied a FracTracker Alliance investigator on his measurement journey through Cat Canyon in early December. He used a sophisticated FLIR Systems camera to detect toxic plumes emanating from two oil field operations on Cat Canyon and Palmer roads. Using a mobile air quality sensor, I obtained hazardous air quality index readings [AQI] for PM2.5 and PM10. These are very small particles that are inhalable.

The California Air Resources Board explains that PM2.5 are particles so small they can pass through the lungs into the bloodstream and can be deposited in tissues where they can actually enter cells, disrupt any of the metabolic processes taking place, create DNA mutations and cause inflammation, a major health hazard. PM10 are particles too large to pass through the lungs; instead they are deposited in the bronchial tubes and the lungs, where they remain, causing asthma, inflammation and lung cancer.

In January, I made the same tour with a witness who is a civilian representative of the county Air Pollution Control District, but this time I stopped at six different entrances to oil field operations. In these two trips a month apart, I obtained a total of 16 different hazardous particulate air quality readings, the range of which was from the low 100s to above 350. These readings are worse than Beijing on a bad day.

Adverse health impacts associated with these readings include premature mortality, increased hospital admissions for heart or lung causes, acute and chronic bronchitis, asthma attacks, emergency room visits and respiratory symptoms.

In addition, of all the common air pollutants, PM2.5 is associated with the greatest proportion of adverse health effects related to air pollution, both in the United States and world-wide based on the World Health Organization’s Global Burden of Disease Project.

Short-term exposures to PM10 have been associated primarily with worsening of respiratory diseases, including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), leading to hospitalization and emergency room visits.

Long-term (months to years) exposure to PM2.5 has been linked to premature death, particularly in people who have chronic heart or lung diseases, and reduced lung function growth in children.

Consider the unexamined local public health costs and tragic consequences of illness and disease that arise from hazardous air pollution. Now, combine that with unknown chemicals in our county’s drinking water as a result of the cyclic steam injection process, and you have a silent health bomb lurking in the shadows, a major cost to taxpayers and a tragedy that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

It’s time to stop all new oil drilling and to forever prevent the use of extreme extraction methods in our oil fields. It’s time for Santa Barbara to continuously monitor air quality in the oil fields and in the communities that are downwind from those fields.

Finally, it’s time to monitor and evaluate the incidence of illness and disease in the communities that surround the oil fields. Then we will have the information we need to identify and protect ourselves from serious risk.

— Santa Ynez Valley resident Irv Beiman is a retired psychologist and management consultant whose experience includes a three-year risk management project funded by the Energy Department at the now-decommissioned Hanford Nuclear Facility in Washington. He has been researching oil, water and air in Santa Barbara County for the last four years. He can be reached at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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