Oil leak may have contaminated Bay Area drinking water supplies

© Michael Buholzer
A chemical leak at a San Francisco Bay Area oil field is suspected of contaminating groundwater supplies of drinking water in a California county. Hazardous chemicals that were absorbed into the soil contained dangerously high levels of lead and chromium.

The leak occurred at a Livermore, California oil field, operated by E&B Natural Resources. Despite being legally obligated to do so, the company failed to quickly report the spill and instead inappropriately tried to clean it up on its own, according to an investigative report by KNTV.

"It was not reported," Susan Hugo, the head of the Hazardous Materials Division at Alameda County's Department of Environmental Health, told KNTV. "The leak was not reported to us."

According to records obtained by the NBC affiliate’s investigative team in San Jose, E&B discovered the leak on March 30 during the removal of an unused oil tank. Seven months later, health authorities are still waiting on test results to determine whether water supplies might be contaminated, potentially putting people at risk.

But this doesn’t mean people in Alameda County have to panic – at least not yet. Hugo said that officials do not have the information yet to determine whether people are in danger of drinking contaminated water. Inspectors only check above-ground oil tanks once every three years, so it wasn’t until a neighboring business filed a complaint that officials knew of the problem, she told KNTV.

The Alameda County Environmental Health Department inspected the site in May and issued a report on June, citing the company “for more than a dozen violations, including improperly disposing of hazardous waste and failing to immediately notify state and local agencies about the release of hazardous material,” according to KNTV.

State records show that E&B has reported 13 spills in four different counties across California since 2010. In the past three months alone, two of the 18 oil spills reported by any company in the state to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services occurred at E&B oil fields.

The official cleanup effort overseen by Alameda County employees is now underway, after the violations were documented. Before the underground aquifers can be safely tested to determine if drinking water is affected, the contaminated soil must be cleaned up so there is no risk of further contamination when crews go deep enough to perform testing, Dilan Roe, the program manager for the Local Oversight Program, told KNTV.

"The major piece is to remove the source and then define the impact and the extent," Roe said, adding that the months-long delay in determining hazards is a concern. "The regulatory process doesn't work as fast as we would all like it to work."

In a written statement, E&B said that it believes that the Livermore leak happened years before it acquired the oil field.

"In late March 2015, when E&B Natural Resources removed an unused storage tank, we discovered oil-stained soil underneath the unused tank. E&B has never used the tank," the statement said. "Any leak occurred prior to E&B's acquisition of the facility in 2006. The company takes full responsibility for cleaning-up the affected soil in a voluntary remediation agreement with the County."