Life, Death & Chemicals: Strawberries and Oil on the Oxnard Plains

Fruit pickers in Oxnard, California. (Alex Proimos)

Fruit pickers in Oxnard, California. (Alex Proimos)

Much of America’s strawberry supply is farmed atop a rich deposit of oil. For a family living among the pesticides and drilling, the source of their health problems is a painful mystery.
Welcome to the California tar sands.

Story by Natalie CherotSPANISH

UPDATE: In March 2016, Juan Delgado passed away at the age of 63 due to cancer, a victim of the toxic conditions for working class & poor families in Oxnard. Click here to read a tribute to Juan by one of his friends.

OXNARD, California

Juan Delgado was growing impatient. He threw his notes off the lectern.

“You are not listening!” he said.

The planning commission, familiar with angry environmentalists, remained calm.

“The state will regulate,” said Brian Baca, who is in charge of granting permits to oil companies, which allow them to inject the Ventura County earth with chemicals and steam that turns the ground molten hot.

Delgado, 61, is old enough to know the state won’t regulate. The state didn’t regulate when his mother worked too many hours on the farm for too little pay, developed arthritis and died of cancer. It didn’t regulate the industries that may have killed his brother, who breathed chemicals much of his 60 years and died of colon cancer. The state didn’t regulate when a driller’s chemicals oozed into the local groundwater and ruined a whole field of broccoli near Delgado’s house. And the state didn’t regulate when a Chevron employee was boiled alive in a pit of that molten ground. In fact, as Delgado followed that news horrified, the governor pushed to deregulate the tar sands industry even more.

Juan Delgado addresses the planning commission. (City of Oxnard)

Juan Delgado addresses the planning commission. (City of Oxnard)

So here was Delgado at the planning commission — again — last fall to plead for limits on the amount of waste, including fracking fluid from all over California and from the nearby tar sands, that oil companies are allowed to dump near his home. But even such limits would probably be useless; to police California’s 50,000 wells, the state has 60 inspectors.

“They have all these laws and permits, but who is in charge of going out to the field every few months?” Delgado said, his rhetoric wandering.

Soon he sat back down. Delgado was in pain more often now, and before long his doctor would tell him the pain is cancer in his stomach. So the reforms he wants aren’t for him. Nor are they for his wife, Elvira, who in a few weeks would be treated for kidney damage. In this city of carcinogenic benzene (for thinning tar sands) and liver-wasting methyl bromide (for fumigating strawberries), their health problems present impossible questions: Was it the pesticides? Bad water from the injection wells? Bad luck?

There will be more meetings, and Delgado will be there. Maybe if he shows up to enough of them, his grandchildren won’t have to ask impossible questions.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Delgado’s neighborhood, Lemonwood, his home for the last 30 years, borders a beautiful, poisoned landscape. A waste dump for spent oil and gas chemicals lies to the east, pesticides from the farming surround him, and to the south, tar sands. When the coastal fog burns off, you can stand on a Lemonwood roof and see just about the entire field, the reflective silver tarps on strawberries, miles of drills, big sky. “Sometimes the smoke is brown. Sometimes I see black smoke,” says Delgado of the farm tractors and drilling rigs, whose exhaust wafts through the air as it has for decades. An old abandoned well contaminates a park where his grandkids play.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Not far from Delgado’s home, he and I watch the trucks roll down East Wooley Road, a central artery for oil engineers, farmworkers and strawberries. Now that he’s a semi-retired environmentalist, he spends a lot of time watching the trucks. Oil contractors have logos on theirs. Farm bosses have five-gallon water barrels in the bed. “Red peppers are popular now,” he says as a truck rumbles past, stacked high with white pallets of bright red vegetables.

Now he’s telling me about Francisco, his brother, who spent 38 years working in the oil industry. No one will ever know what caused the colon cancer. The family has never undergone gene testing to determine whether there’s a hereditary link. But Francisco, a soccer player, was always sturdy — except at the end. “He was so thin,” Delgado says. Chevron, his employer, paid his medical bills, which amounted to well over $1 million. He died on July 11, 2010, a few months before the farmworkers saw the chemicals in the broccoli water.

Juan Delgado (Natalie Cherot)

Juan Delgado (Natalie Cherot)

After that chemical leak was discovered, Tri-Valley spent nearly four years cleaning it up. Amid an EPA investigation, workers harvested the entire field of broccoli and then destroyed it.

The contaminated groundwater wasn’t used for drinking, but that didn’t offer Delgado or other residents any assurances: There is no monitoring of the oil impact on groundwater that flows through Oxnard taps, even though tar sands drillers push their wells deep through the water table. A cracked casing could poison an aquifer. (None of the local energy companies — Vaca Energy, Peak Operator and California Resources Corp., formerly Vintage Petroleum — would comment for this article.)

Tri-Valley went bankrupt in 2012, but new players quickly and quietly came onto the scene. Tar sands extraction — through processes of cyclic steaming and steam assisted gravity drainage, better known as SAG-D — continued. The methods involve blasting 10,000 to 20,000 barrels of steaming, chemical-laced water 2,500 feet underground, pushing through the municipal groundwater and heating the tar sands to 300 degrees Celsius, when the oil is molten enough to rise through pipes.

The steaming water is simply discarded via injection wells. This has been known to cause earthquakes. In the worst cases, according to an EPA memo released this month, more than 2,000 wells across the state, including two in Oxnard, may be injecting waste chemicals directly into clean underground water supplies. (The state’s regulation is so lax, the public doesn’t know for sure; but every tar sand well is now under investigation.)

Despite the concerns, between 2005 and the beginning of this year, California officials have sought to hasten drilling, removing regulatory hurdles to let oil companies into the earth faster. In Oxnard’s Ventura County, an environmentalist group was examining emails between the government and oil companies and discovered that an official had been coaching executives to remove words like “fracking” in permit applications to avoid triggering public hearings.

“They don’t want to slow down oil,” said John Brooks, a local activist.

They won’t even slow it down for tragedy.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

A Vaca Energy rig steams the Oxnard tar sands. (Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A Vaca Energy rig steams the Oxnard tar sands. (Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

On the morning of June 21, 2011, a 54-year-old Chevron worker named David Taylor was checking on a well in Kern County, northeast of Oxnard. Cyclic steaming is supposed to happen well below the surface, but, oddly, steam was rising from the ground. When Taylor and two co-workers went to check on it, the earth opened up and sucked him into a hole filled with hydrogen sulfide and water heated to nearly 90 degrees Celsius. A colleague later said, “Other workers could not react in time to save him from falling.” Taylor burned alive.

The state’s Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources, or DOGGR, launched an investigation and found that while Taylor had avoided stepping on wet ground, years of steaming had made even the dry ground at the oil field unstable.

An investigator’s photo of the crater shows Taylor’s hardhat laying beside it. That evening, workers found Taylor’s remains about five feet underground.

Nonetheless, regulators allowed Chevron to continue steaming, even as more of these euphemistically named “surface expressions” cropped up.

On Aug. 4 that year, the surface expressed violently: The ground 12 meters from Taylor’s crater exploded. Large rocks and oil catapulted 45 meters, a tsunami of oil.

DOGGR restricted steaming for 90 meters around the area. Less than two weeks later, on Aug. 17, another crater erupted. Steam billowed into the sky. DOGGR expanded the buffer to 240 meters but allowed drilling to continue. Steaming water and hot oil seeped up from craters on the well pad throughout September and November as Chevron continued its work. Employees said the earth shook beneath them.

In October, just four months after Taylor’s death, instead of imposing further new regulations, California Gov. Jerry Brown sought permitting shortcuts from regulators to let drillers begin steam injection faster. The head of the Department of Conservation, Derek Chernow, wrote a memo asserting that doing so would be illegal. A week later, Brown fired him.

For Taylor’s death, the state’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health fined Chevron $350.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Delgado saw Taylor’s death and the state’s response as proof that California bureaucrats were not interested in protecting the state from oil drillers. The same cyclic steaming happening in Kern was happening in their backyard.

Here the players aren’t Chevron but small companies, with executives in Los Angeles. One of the Oxnard activists, an ex-nun named Lupe Anguiano, calls the tar sands drillers “the people from Beverly Hills.” Peak Operator is one such driller. The company’s controlling investor, movie producer Pierre Caland, is perhaps the only oil operator in the world with an IMDb page.

“Oxnard has the richest soil. It’s heartbreaking Vaca is destroying it,” Anguiano says, referring to another company that swept into territory once controlled (and contaminated) by Tri-Valley when it went belly up.

If not for Delgado, the public might largely be in the dark about their operations. When Vaca Energy began extracting oil, it took over old permits rather than applying for new ones, avoiding scrutiny. It was Delgado, watching the trucks and talking with the drivers, who learned what was going on.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Activist Lupe Anguiano, left, and Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez stand near tanks of steam. (Elaine Fragosa)

Activist Lupe Anguiano, left, and Councilwoman Carmen Ramirez stand near tanks of steam. (Elaine Fragosa)

In 2010, FBI agents raided city hall to investigate whether taxpayers were paying for Oxnard officials to vacation in Los Cabos and Manhattan. The scandal swept out the old regime. New leaders came in, and Carmen Ramirez, a public interest lawyer and an advocate for farm workers, was one of them. In the City Council, she has thrust public health and environmental concerns onto the agenda.

Oxnard, she says, has been “a zone of sacrifice,” where energy deals are made at the expense of air and water. But now she believes the city has “turned a new page.”

The night before Christmas Eve last year, she called a special council meeting about the construction of a fourth power plant in the city. She invited Delgado and Anguiano to attend and speak out against it.

Locals queued for their three minutes at the podium, where one by one they demanded an end to chemical dumping, methane flares, pesticides, hydraulic fracturing and on and on. Delgado squirmed in his chair, but every position seemed painful. He was not in the mood to address the council. Tonight he would just watch and listen.

“There are too many chemicals here,” declared one resident from the crowd before she got up and walked out of the meeting.

Afterward, Anguiano approached Delgado and said, “My doctor says she wouldn’t even know what out there was making me sick if I got sick.”

“We expect the new city manager to perform miracles,” Delgado replied.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Farmworkers in Oxnard (Steve Martinez/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Farmworkers in Oxnard (Steve Martinez/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Actually, the miracle came at the end of last year, when the oil companies slowed down their drilling all on their own. And it had nothing to do with Ramirez, Anguiano, Delgado or regulators.

Between December and January, a global oversupply of crude sent the price plummeting so low that it sent shocks throughout the California oil industry. Oil companies and oil field subcontractors laid off workers and withdrew oil permit applications all across Ventura County. Without the drilling tax revenue, local governments were in a panic; Kern, the county where Taylor died, declared a fiscal emergency. On Jan. 19, crude hit $47 a barrel.

There was no celebration, however. That same day, Delgado went in for his first chemotherapy appointment. A week before Ramirez’s pre-Christmas meeting, Delgado’s doctor told him there was a tumor in his stomach. His prognosis is poor.

When I met with him in mid-January, five days before his chemotherapy was to begin, an injection port was already surgically installed on his chest. If exposure to chemicals virtually since birth had caused his cancer, perhaps this new chemical poison could save him.

“They are going to start fracking me,” Delgado laughs. He thinks often of death now. “I want to die while I can still take care of myself,” he says. “I would rather go when I am still walking.” As long as he is, he is trying to cram in as much of life as he can. He recently traveled to Las Vegas to watch his granddaughter play in a soccer tournament.

Whatever is killing him, Delgado lasted longer than most.

Natalie Cherot, PhD, is a journalist based in California.

Edited by Ben Wolford. Additional editing by Jackie Valley.

Originally published Mar 23, 2015 in Latterly Magazine. Republished with author’s permission.

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