Still no resolution for Bakersfield farmer five months after inactive oil well spewed hundreds of gallons of oil, drenching farms, animals and fruit trees

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State regulators have not held inactive well operator Sequoia Exploration accountable for cleaning up the site and containing ongoing leaks that lead to a prolonged safety risk to farmers, animals and crops.

Bakersfield, California – In another devastating example of the dangers posed by oil and gas drilling and inactive wells, Bakersfield organic farmer Larry Saldana has spent five months trying to get state regulators, the California Division of Geological Energy Management (CalGEM), to hold operator Sequoia Exploration accountable for cleaning up his property after an inactive well spewed oil all over his farms and neighbors on Feb. 24.  2023, damaging crops and covering Saldana’s goats with oil.

During the dangerous California winter storm that triggered a blizzard warning and ultimately closed interstate highways, caused power outages and hit the Central Valley with record rainfall, Sequoia Exploration sent a worker to remove the rig on an inactive well (Warren 2 API # 02914474) at Saldana Farm on February 24. Well logs show that this was owned by ExxonMobil’s predecessor company, Standard Oil. The incident comes after multiple orphan wells owned by Chevron leaked in another Kern County town, Arvin, days before the local high school graduation into wells located on property next door.

The storm proved to be a disastrous backdrop, and according to the Sequoia Exploration worker, Saldana learned that hundreds of gallons of oil sprayed Saldana’s farm and three surrounding farms, aided by extremely high winds and rain that carried oil onto three adjacent properties.

A month later, on March 24, Saldana returned to his farm after traveling to discover the scene. He noticed large puddles of oil on the ground, oil splashing on fruit trees, greenhouses, buildings, vehicles, fences surrounding the entire farm and on his miniature goats and the grass they were eating. Oil sprayed everywhere across their 2.5 acre property. Saldana lost most of the lemons on seven of his trees because the oil sprayed the organically grown fruit. He also discovered that the oil had sprayed at least three neighboring properties with multiple dogs, cats, sheep, goats, cows and calves living outside.

Saldana reported the spill to Sequoia Exploration, and the worker responsible for maintenance initially stated that the oil well spilled due to the storm and admitted that they should not have been working that day. Later, the company changed its tune and downplayed the damage and culpability. In the five months since the incident, Sequoia has stalled cleanup efforts, the first cleanup proposal only offering to replace one of its oil-covered greenhouses while refusing to address the contaminated trees, and simply offered Saldana $2000 in damages. Saldana also took video of Sequoia trying to remediate oil spills by carelessly shoveling dirt over oil puddles in response. In the meantime, Saldana has had no choice but to continue operating her oil-soaked farm while interacting with oil residue that she then tracks home on her shoes or touches with her hands while working on the farm.

While seeking resources directly with Sequoia Exploration owner Chris Boyd, Saldana contacted CalGEM and filed a report with the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services on April 24. CalGEM inspector Marvelous Egboro initially promised to be in contact with Saldana on a weekly basis, but did not follow up.

Finally, Saldana contacted a local community group, the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN). CCEJN’s Oil and Gas Director, Cesar Aguirre, visited Saldana’s farm on July 6 with his FLIR (forward-looking infrared) camera, a specialized camera that can visually detect gas leaks from oil and gas infrastructure, and found methane and/or toxic chemical compounds in the air escaping from the wellhead. Aguirre notified the San Joaquin Air District and they indicated that the site was exempt from the District, but shared the information with CalGEM.

CalGEM was on site the morning of July 7 to confirm the leak and issue Sequoia Exploration two notices of violations. Dustin Leavitt with CalGEM later informed Saldana that the leak, identified by Aguirre, was resolved on July 8. The next day, Aguirre returned to Saldana’s farm with the FLIR camera and found new leaks at new locations at the same wellhead.

The utter lack of responsibility of CalGEM and Sequoia Exploration to remediate this spill and contain ongoing leaks, highlights the continued danger of inactive wells, the lack of enforcement and oversight of the oil industry, and the power of oil companies to ignore the livelihoods of families harmed by their operations.

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