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North Dakota regulators mull easing pipeline spill fine

December 14, 2015 GMT

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — North Dakota regulators are considering easing a record $2.4 million fine levied against a Texas company for a pipeline spill that spewed saltwater and oil for three months before being detected.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission, a three-member all-Republican panel led by Gov. Jack Dalrymple, approved the sanction in June against Woodlands, Texas-based Summit Midstream Partners and its subsidiary, Meadowlark Midstream Co. The 3 million-gallon spill, the largest in state history, was discovered in early January near Williston in western North Dakota but regulators believe the ruptured pipeline had been leaking unnoticed since early October, 2014.

Officials said it primarily contaminated Blacktail Creek but also flowed into the Little Muddy and Missouri rivers, though there was no harm to drinking water supplies because it was so diluted.

Alison Ritter, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Mineral Resources, said Monday that the state and the company are “actively negotiating a settlement.” Ritter’s agency regulates the state’s oil and gas industry and is overseen by the Industrial Commission.


North Dakota regulators routinely settle on fines that are about 10 percent of the maximum penalty, saying it promotes cooperation.

“They are sometimes lowered to ensure proper cleanup and so that no similar violations occur,” Ritter said.

North Dakota has suffered scores of saltwater oil spills since the state’s energy boom began in earnest less than a decade ago. Saltwater is an unwanted byproduct of oil production and can be many times saltier than sea water.

A network of saltwater pipelines extends to hundreds of disposal wells in the western part of the state, where the briny water is pumped underground for permanent storage. Legislation to mandate flow meters and cutoff switches on saltwater pipelines was overwhelmingly rejected in the Legislature in 2013.

In a statement, Summit declined comment on the negotiations.

“As for overall status of the incident, we’ve moved into long-term remediation and continue to work collaboratively with the (state) and industry experts to determine the cause, duration and volume of the release,” the statement said.

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, has been critical of the state relaxing fines for spills and other oil field violations.

“Unless we start making it painful, they will continue business as usual,” Schafer said.

Karl Rockeman, director of water quality for the state Health Department, said a joint investigation by his agency and the federal Environmental Protection Agency is ongoing. He said the company will face additional state and federal sanctions from that investigation, though he would not elaborate until the investigation is complete.

Officials have said more than 4 million gallons of a mixture of fresh water, saltwater and oil have been pumped from affected areas.

Rockeman said cleanup had been done daily but has been put on hold due to cold weather. He did not know when the cleanup would be completed.

“We can’t put a date on it at this point but they will be at it again next summer,” he said.