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Stark Co. drinking water threatened by waste disposal

Environmental violations at a fracking waste water disposal well near Dickinson that threatened drinking water in Stark County have prompted North Dakota's largest civil case and the first ever criminal case against an oil and gas operator.

The company, Halek Operating ND LLC, faces up to $1.5 million in fines for injecting salt water used in hydraulic fracturing, commonly called fracking, into the disposal site after having been told to stop because the site was not up to state standards.

The North Dakota Industrial Commission filed the civil complaint against Halek in Burleigh County District Court.

A criminal complaint filed in Stark County charges Nathan Garber, president of Executive Drilling LLC, with a Class C felony. The case alleges that Garber knowingly violated Industrial Commission rules by directing employees of another company to modify the dump site to deceive inspectors.

Executive Drilling LLC is somehow related to Halek, but officials are unclear about the connection, said Lynn Helms, director of the Department of Mineral Resources.

Helms said this is the most significant environmental case in North Dakota that he's aware of.

"It's a very serious violation and it needs to be dealt with in a very serious manner," Helms said.

Halek attempted to drill for oil in the Lodgepole formation, but was unsuccessful, Helms said. The company then converted the oil well into a salt water disposal well.

Rules require disposal wells to have three layers of steel to protect drinking water, Helms said. In this case, there was only one layer of protection, he said.

"They've tripled the risk of contaminating a drinking water zone with this well," Helms said.

If salt water had contaminated the drinking water zones, it would have been very serious, which is why officials are pursuing maximum civil and criminal penalties, Helms said.

"It takes many, many years to clean it up, if it can be done at all," he said.

Officials will be testing at the site to check for possible contamination, Helms said. The Industrial Commission is now in control of that well and not allowing it to be used.

The North Dakota Bureau of Criminal Investigation assisted in the case and determined that Garber was the individual responsible for signing paperwork to direct another company to modify the well site to mislead inspectors.

"It was literally done in the middle of the night," Helms said.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said the willful violation of Industrial Commission rules warrant a felony charge against Garber. The maximum penalty is five years in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Garber is believed to be in Texas and officials will attempt to extradite him to North Dakota, Stenehjem said.

Halek Operating has 21 days to respond to the civil complaint. Attempts to reach Garber and Halek representatives for comment were unsuccessful.

During a meeting of the Industrial Commission on Tuesday, members called for aggressive enforcement of environmental rules.

"There will not be any exceptions or leniency when these things happen," said Gov. Jack Dalrymple.

A year ago, the Industrial Commission cited Halek for improperly cleaning up an oil spill, also near Dickinson. Halek faced more than $588,000 in potential fines, but was ordered to pay less than 10 percent of that with the rest suspended, Helms said. Halek also paid a $20,000 cash bond in case future contamination showed up, Helms said.

Halek could be ordered to pay the suspended amount of the fine, $528,750, if the company has another similar violation before Nov. 4.

Helms said he does not think this new case will trigger that suspended fine because it's a different type of violation.

However, Helms said he expects the company will end up paying a higher percentage of the fines in this new case.

"I would think that they'll be much more severe with action on this second violation," Helms said.

Halek Operating ND LLC is registered with the Secretary of State with a Dickinson post office box and a Twin Cities cellphone number. It's also associated with Halek Energy Partners in Texas.