Kern County Toxic Tour

I was told to bring lots of water, a respirator mask, ginger ale, and something caffeinated. The fumes could sometimes be overwhelming, especially on a hot day, and these would help with the headaches and nausea.

On a sunny afternoon in early May, I made the two hour drive up from Los Angeles to Kern County, the southernmost area of what makes up California's sprawling Central Valley. I was there to meet with Rosanna Esparza of Clean Water Action, an environmental non-profit that is active in the communities that dot the landscape of what is one of America's most fertile, as well as oil-rich, regions.  

Rosanna had invited me to come on what she deemed the "Toxic Tour," a three hour loop (which eventually stretched into five) through the seemingly endless intertwined stretches of oil fields and farmlands, and the rural communities of mostly migrant workers employed by both industries. The photos below are a collection of moments from the tour.


We met in a parking lot in Bakersfield that overlooked the vast Kern River Oil Field. This was our first stop of the tour. Thousands of nodding pumpjacks freckled the rolling hills deep into the horizon. Rosanna explained that I was lucky to have come on such a clear day as often times the smog is so thick, the drills are barely visible. The greatly diminished Kern River trickled below, a reminder of the region's ongoing historic drought.

Kern River Oil Field


We made our way down into the mostly Chevron-controlled field and stopped at a tepid, stagnant canal that branched off the Kern River. Thick green slime oozed on its surfaced as a group of birds circled overhead. Rosanna remarked that they'd be wise to refrain from drinking the water. This would end up foreshadowing the day to come. 

Chevron canal

We continued our way north, meandering past endless pumpjacks, the occasional fracking rig, and eventually to the edge of a large swath of farmland where we pulled of to inspect another canal. On one side laid the many miles of drilling fields that we had just traversed and on the other was a vast citrus farm with thousands of clementines or tangerines speckling the trees and ground below. Across the road was a large farm with sheep and livestock. The smell was as an unpleasant as you might imagine. As we pulled up and got out of the car, Rosanna informed me that this was an untreated oil wastewater canal. The water was a toxic mix of radioactive and carcinogenic byproducts of the oil drilling process. Next to the canal, we came across the bones and rotten carcasses of several dead animals, which Rosanna guessed were likely sheep and coyotes. She was unfazed by the sight, explaining that animals regularly manage to find their way past the barbed wire fence and down to the canal for a drink of water, after which they proceed to drop dead on its banks.  

bones barbed wire
skull bones

Due to the drought, Kern County and other areas of the Central Valley have seen extreme water rationing measures over the past several years. With many farmers receiving only a fraction - if any - of their annual allotment of water from their usual source, the California Aqueduct, an increasing number have turned to the private market in hopes of finding a way to keep their crops alive. Oil and gas producers have taken note and are selling barrels of wastewater to farms for use in crop irrigation. They claim that the water has been cleaned of all oil drilling byproducts and is completely safe. 

At our next stop on the tour, Rosanna showed me the "cleaning" process. In an area between a large grape vineyard, a pistachio and almond grove, and a cattle auctioning market, two large unlined canals converged in a bubbling, noxious mess of dark slime and floating garbage. The area was marked with "no swimming" signs. No kidding. One of the canals contained untreated oil wastewater while the other contained fresh water. The two combined to form a third canal, which was then deemed "clean" and sold to farms. I took a photo of Rosanna standing above the mixed waterway before we continued. 

We eventually made our way to the small town of Lost Hills near the northwest corner of Kern County. The town lies just beside the massive Lost Hills Oil Field, as well as the sprawling groves of agribusiness giant Paramount Farms. The leading employer in the community, Paramount Farms is also the world's largest producer of almonds and pistachios. As we passed through, Rosanna told me of the myriad of health effects that plague the residents including frequent headaches, nosebleeds, and nausea, as well as asthma, birth defects, kidney diseases, and various types of cancer. In the town of only about 2,400 people, nearly half of adults have inhalers.  

We continued west to the Belridge Oil Field, a vast production area along CA Route 33, known fittingly as the "Petroleum Highway." From several miles away we spotted a gigantic 30-40 foot high gas flare burning off excess natural gas and drilling byproducts into the atmosphere. It was the first flare that I had witnessed in person and one of the largest Rosanna had ever seen in the area.  

As we headed south on 33, passing thousands upon thousands of pumpjacks on our right, vast expanses of farmland blanketed our left including a large "Halos" mandarin orange farm. After several hours of similar scenes - drilling rigs just feet from farms that supply the entire nation - I was no longer fazed by the sight, a scary realization looking back on it. 

About 15 miles down the Petroleum Highway, we turned onto a dirt road which lead us to several large unlined toxic wastewater pits. The car was immediately filled with an overwhelming smell of gasoline. I realized why Rosanna suggested I bring a mask. I approached the nearest pit and began shooting. Rosanna warned me to be quick - it would not take long to begin feeling sick at such a close distance. She also mentioned that the net covering the pit was a recent addition, affixed in response to the slew of animal carcasses that previously littered the area. A common theme for the day. The heat and fumes emanating from the virulent concoction eventually got to me and I retreated to the car with a headache and a slimy feeling all over my exposed skin.  

A recent front page story in the LA Times reported that hundreds of these pits exist without proper permits across Kern County. The impact they are having on the groundwater below and the many thousands of acres of nearby farmland is clearly a cause for great concern. 

  Rosanna snapped this photo of me as I stood beside one of the wastewater pits. 

Rosanna snapped this photo of me as I stood beside one of the wastewater pits. 

As the sun began to set behind the distant mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, we visited one last drilling site; a silhouetted fracking rig looming tall above yet another grove of almond trees in the town of Shafter. The dichotomy du jour, I was once again reminded of the fragile relationship at play in one of our nation's most fertile and resource-abundant regions. 

As I drove back to LA, I ruminated with disgust over what I had just witnessed that day. It is unconscionable that oil companies are allowed to pollute with impunity and jeopardize not only a critical portion of our nation's food supply, but also the health of local communities. People in Kern County are suffering immensely yet are routinely ignored and marginalized at every level of government. Oil companies and farms using wastewater on their crops maintain that the food is safe, but if the adverse health effects that we've seen in Lost Hills, among others, are any indication of the impact of living in close proximity to these oil fields, we have every reason to demand an end to these harmful practices.  

36 and a Canon A-1

I've always been one for nostalgia. Whenever I make the yearly trip back home for the holidays, I love digging through my closet and rediscovering relics from my childhood. Among the hockey jerseys, Redwall books, rolled up skateboarding posters, and stacks of punk cd's, there's a box full of disposable camera photos. Christmas mornings, long-gone pets, family vacations, and teenage debauchery are all catalogued in a dusty, frayed shoebox.

While the photos bring back many memories of my youth and the relative freedom that accompanied it, I've more so found myself remembering and longing for the simplicity that existed before I discovered digital photography. Back before I knew anything about high-speed burst modes, Photoshop, or Instagram filters, I knew there were only 27 exposures and I had to make each one count. 

I recently purchased an old Canon A-1 35mm SLR off Craigslist for $125 after wanting for quite some time to take another stab at film photography. This camera was made in 1978 and while its construction feels solid and sturdy, it has clearly seen better days. I've shot two rolls of Kodak Ektar 100 and a roll of Portra 800, both with 36 exposures per roll, and the results have been interesting, to say the least. I'm no expert when it comes to film cameras but it appears that additional light is somehow finding its way into the camera and onto the exposed film. Many of the images were totally washed out but a number of them actually came out with some pretty interesting and stylized natural light leaks, in addition to a few accidental double exposures and one image where it appears that the teeth slipped while advancing the film, resulting in a kind of split screen effect. 

While I'll admit that it was a bit disappointing to lose a few shots that I knew were good, the satisfaction of the shots that did turn out has been totally worth it. More than anything it's been a welcomed challenge to slow down, study the frame, and decide whether or not what I'm seeing is really worth one of my 36.