STANLEY, N.D. – Local officials in the Oil Patch say they know some truck drivers are dumping liquid waste in remote areas to save time and money, but it’s rare to be able to pursue criminal charges.
“We are seeing lots of dumping, we have for a long time,” McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson said. “You’ve just got to catch them.”
One of those rare cases is in Mountrail County, where prosecutors have charged a truck driver with a felony after he allegedly dumped a toxic byproduct of oil drilling onto a roadway to save time.
Chad N. Christensen is charged with violating the rules and regulations of the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the second person to be charged with illegal dumping.
Court records say the Mountrail County Sheriff’s Office received a report last July 1 that a truck driver for LYNX LLC dumped an oil-based fluid on a driveway and township road.
The deputy who responded wrote in an affidavit filed in court that the waste was drilling fluid, also known as “invert mud water,” and it was dumped onto a stretch of road estimated to be a half-mile to three-quarters of a mile long. The driver estimated that about 50 barrels spilled, which is equal to 2,100 gallons.
“The driver stated that he wanted to get back to the drilling rig quicker so he dumped the hazardous waste on the roadway,” the deputy wrote.
In the immediate area of the dumping, there was water in the ditch and several waterways that could be affected by the drilling fluid, court records say.
Christensen, of Idaho Falls, Idaho, is scheduled to appear in court today for an arraignment and preliminary hearing. His attorney, Ryan Sandberg of Minot, did not return a call seeking comment.
Phil Horn, CEO of LYNX LLC, said Wednesday the spill was accidental and he plans to testify on Christensen’s behalf.
Mountrail County State’s Attorney Wade Enget declined to comment on the specifics of the case. But he said recent administrative rule changes have given authorities better ability to respond to cases of illegal dumping when a responsible party is identified.
Prior to the rule change, a truck driver likely would have faced a traffic code violation for a leaking load, Enget said.
“It just gives a little bit more teeth to it,” Enget said.
In the other criminal dumping case, which was in Williams County, truck driver Benjamin LeBaron of Dickinson pleaded guilty to a Class C felony. Video surveillance recorded LeBaron illegally dumping saltwater, a byproduct of oil production.
LeBaron was ordered to pay a total of $1,475 in fines, fees and restitution and sentenced to one year of supervised probation.
McKenzie County, which has the highest concentration of drilling activity, has not yet had any criminal cases for illegal dumping, yet Samuelson estimates he receives two to three reports a month.
“Time is money, and they don’t want to sit in line at a salt water disposal site for hours. When they can get away with it, they’ll just dump it in the ditch and they’ll go get another load,” Samuelson said.
He’s considering talking to county commissioners about developing a reward system to get the public’s help to identify culprits.
“We’ve had a lot of spills where you don’t know who’s doing it,” Samuelson said.
In one case last spring, McKenzie County was on the hook for a $28,000 bill to clean up waste that was dumped in a ditch, Samuelson said.
A law change that took effect July 1 gives communities the ability to apply to a North Dakota Industrial Commission Oil and Gas Division fund for reimbursement in the case of an illegal dumping. Samuelson said the county recently received reimbursement for cleanup of a smaller spill that cost $2,000.
Since that law change, the Oil and Gas Division also has reimbursed the Williston Fire Department $12,000 to clean up crude oil that was illegally dumped on U.S. Highway 2 on the north end of the city in August, said Alison Ritter, spokeswoman for the division.
Dennis Fewless, director of the Division of Water Quality for the North Dakota Department of Health, said the agency is working on a new database that will track public complaints about illegal dumping and other issues. That will help the department monitor trends and beef up inspections in problem areas, Fewless said.
Dumping produced water or other fluid onto a roadway can drain off into the ditch and potentially affect waters of the state, kill vegetation or contaminate watering areas for cattle, Fewless said.
“It’s just something we want to eliminate as much as possible,” Fewless said.