ForestWatch Files Appeal to Planning Commission, Citing Violations of State Law
Late afternoon on Thursday, February 26, Los Padres ForestWatch filed an appeal challenging an oil company’s plans to double the size of its drilling operation along Santa Paula Creek between Ojai and Santa Paula in Ventura County. The site is located along the boundary of the Los Padres National Forest and is bisected by one of the most popular recreational trails in the forest.
The new oil wells are proposed at four locations on the historic Ferndale Ranch adjacent to Thomas Aquinas College, a quaint campus in a picturesque, remote canyon that serves as a major gateway into the national forest.
The first oil well in the area was drilled in 1971, and over the years a total of 17 wells have been drilled here, many times with little or no environmental review. Vintage Production – a spinoff of global oil giant Occidental Petroleum Corporation – recently took over the property, and applied for permission to drill 19 additional wells and continue oil extraction here for another 30 years.
The County’s Planning Division approved the wells earlier this month, along with a 9-page addendum to an Environmental Impact Report from 1985. That outdated EIR only evaluates truck access to and from the drilling sites, and expressly omits any discussion of the impacts of drilling on views from the trail, on imperiled wildlife like the endangered California condor, and on flood risk and water pollution. Under the California Environmental Quality Act, the County is required to update this environmental study to incorporate new information and changed circumstances that have emerged over the last three decades.
“The County is trying to evade environmental review by relying on an outdated and inadequate report that was prepared three decades ago,” said ForestWatch executive director Jeff Kuyper. “Once again, the Planning Division is catering to the needs of the oil industry instead of protecting one of the most popular gateways into the Los Padres National Forest.”
Of the 19 new wells approved, 13 of them are located along the East Fork Santa Paula Creek Trail, which takes travelers through a historic avocado ranch and a pristine canyon to a series of famed swimming holes and waterfalls called The Punchbowl, and several wilderness campsites beyond. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that as many as 100,000 people use this trail every year, making it one of the most popular gateways into the Sespe Wilderness in the Los Padres National Forest.
Santa Paula Canyon provides habitat for several rare and imperiled wildlife, including southern steelhead and California condors. The site is also part of the original Chumash village of Sisa, the largest of the inland village sites and considered by archaeologists to be of the “highest significance” in understanding the entire Chumash economic sphere and social network.
Days before the Planning Division issued its decision, ForestWatch submitted a letter to county officials outlining a series of permit violations that currently exist at the facility. These violations include:
- failing to install landscaping to shield the oil wells from view of the hiking trail;
- failing to work with the U.S. Forest Service to reroute the trail away from the wells;
- failing to implement basic security measures, such as preventing public access to oil facilities and rerouting a road to prevent runaway vehicles;
- failing to protect a pipeline suspended across Santa Paula Creek from flooding risks;
- preventing intrusion of pollutants and hazardous runoff into groundwater; and
- failing to notify Thomas Aquinas College about recent fracking and acidizing operations.
In addition, County inspectors have failed to conduct a periodic compliance review of the site. The facility has a long history of significant permit violations, placing this area’s natural resources at great risk.
Based on these violations, ForestWatch requested that County planners nullify the application and commence enforcement action against the facility for violating the terms and conditions of its permit. To date, ForestWatch has not received any response from the County.
“The oil industry has ignored the rules in Santa Paula Canyon for decades,” said Kuyper. “It’s time for them to clean up their act. Our appeal will give the Planning Commission an opportunity to protect our trails and open spaces from this rogue operation.”
The Planning Commission will consider the ForestWatch appeal at a hearing later this year.