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World California cleaning up massive spill that saw 800,000 gallons of oil dumped into canyon

Oil flows at a Chevron oil field in Kern County, Calif. Nearly 800,000 gallons of oil and water has seeped from the ground since May.

The Canadian Press

California authorities said Friday that crews are beginning to clean up a massive oil spill that dumped nearly 800,000 gallons of oil and water into a Kern County canyon, making it larger — if less devastating — than the state’s last two major oil spills.

The seep, which has been flowing off and on since May, has again stopped, said Chevron spokeswoman Veronica Flores-Paniagua. The last flow was Tuesday.

She and California officials said the spill is not near any waterway and has not significantly affected wildlife.

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Chevron reported that 794,000 gallons (about 3 million litres) of oil and water have leaked out of the ground where it uses steam injection to extract oil in the large Cymric Oil Field about 35 miles (56 kilometres) west of Bakersfield. The steam softens the thick crude so it can flow more readily and is a different process from fracking, which breaks up underground layers of rock.

About 70 per cent of the fluid is water, Chevron said, meaning about 240,000 gallons (908,472 litres) of the mixture is oil.

Earlier this year, a judge fined Plains All American Pipeline nearly $3.35 million for causing what had been the worst California coastal spill in 25 years. A corroded pipeline spilled 140,000 gallons (529,942 litres) of crude oil in 2015 onto Refugio State Beach in Santa Barbara County, northwest of Los Angeles, tarring popular beaches for miles, killing wildlife and harming tourism and fishing.

In 2007, the container ship Cosco Busan leaked nearly 54,000 gallons (204,406 litres) of heavy fuel oil into San Francisco Bay after the ship hit the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in thick fog.

The state’s worst spill was the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that leaked at least 80,000 barrels of crude oil into the Santa Barbara Channel. Each barrel is 42 gallons (159 litres).

But the effect of this year’s Chevron spill on birds and wildlife appears minimal, said Steve Gonzalez, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response. Chevron said the spill flowed into a dry stream bed, and Gonzalez noted that it is unlikely to rain anytime soon.

“There’s no active waterway that it’s nearby, so that’s the good news,” he said.

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However, environmental groups said the Chevron spill is another sign of weakened regulations under an embattled California agency. Gov. Gavin Newsom this week fired the head of the state’s oil and gas division because of a recent increase in hydraulic fracturing permits and amid a conflict of interest investigation of other division employees.

“At this point they have it dammed off and they’re sucking it out, sucking the oil out,” Gonzalez said.

Chevron hires contractors to clean up the spill and bears the expense of the cleanup, he said, though the state office will oversee the process. The investigation into what caused the seep and the cleanup is somewhat delayed, he said, while officials make sure there are no dangerous fumes from the oil or sinkholes that could trap workers or heavy equipment.

The state has issued Chevron a notice of violation ordering it to stop steam injections for 600 feet (183 metres) around the area where the seep was occurring. The company also increased its production of oil from wells in that area. Both actions are intended to relieve underground pressure that may be forcing the oil and water mix to the surface.

The spill was first reported by KQED-TV.

The Last Chance Alliance, which includes environmental groups including the Center for Biological Diversity, said the state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources adopted weaker restrictions on steam injection earlier this year, “making these operations even more dangerous.” Newsom fired the division chief, Ken Harris, on Thursday.

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The environment groups said state regulators and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year approved an exemption that removed protections from an aquifer in the Cymric Oil Field at the request of Chevron and other oil companies.

“California’s industry-friendly oil regulator continues to provide about as much protection as a screen door on a submarine,” Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement.

Neither Chevron nor division spokesman Don Drysdale commented on the criticism.

Kern County Public Health Services Department spokeswoman Michelle Corson did not comment on the spill, deferring to the state agency.

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