No watering down rules: Oil companies could be fined for flooded wells
TRENTON — Oil companies that failed to prepare for flooding near the confluence of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers could face enforcement action, state officials said Monday.
Zavanna, the company that had oil leak from a tank into floodwaters Friday, could face fines from the North Dakota Department of Health.
A tank that contained 1,386 gallons of oil at a well site a little over a mile from the river channel was not secured, floated and leaked an unknown amount of oil into the floodwaters, the health department said.
Dennis Fewless, director of the Division of Water Quality, said Zavanna got caught “behind the eight ball” in preparation for the flooding, but picked up the pace Friday and Saturday to contain the oil and protect other sites.
Another company, Proven Petroleum, could face enforcement action from the Department of Mineral Resources for failing to heed the state’s warning to prepare for flooding, Director Lynn Helms said.
Three wells owned by Proven Petroleum continued pumping oil Friday, with the weights of the pumping units splashing in the floodwaters, Helms said.
The department told Proven Petroleum to cut off power to those sites on Friday to remotely shut down the wells, said spokeswoman Alison Ritter.
“If they had kept pumping, the tanks might have overflowed,” Helms said.
John Teff, business manager for Proven Petroleum, headquartered in Denver, said the wells are secure.
“They are shut in. There’s no leaks. They’re secure,” said Teff, who declined to comment further.
The Department of Mineral Resources talked to operators of about 50 wells on March 10 and advised them to prepare for flooding and take necessary precautions to protect those sites, Ritter said.
The department did not specifically order the companies to shut down wells in that area, though regulators do have that authority in the event of a serious threat of pollution or harm to human health, Ritter said.
Because of the unpredictability of ice jams, the department issued an advisory rather than an order to shut down the wells, Ritter said.
Travis Pfaff, production manager for Zavanna, told Forum News Service on Saturday the company started removing equipment from well sites at 10 p.m. Wednesday and ran out of time to fully secure all sites. Crews also had a mechanical issue with a boat Thursday, which caused a crew to be stranded and hindered preparation efforts, he said.
Zavanna officials are considering shutting down wells in that area during certain times of year, Pfaff said.
The company has deployed three cleanup crews in the area and contained the spill using 6,200 feet of absorbent booms. Although the tank that leaked contained 1,386 gallons of oil, Pfaff and health officials said the amount that spilled is believed to be significantly less.
An unknown amount of oil got off the well location and into some high grasses and trees that were flooded, said Kris Roberts, environmental response team leader with the Health Department’s Division of Water Quality.
Cleanup crews will use absorbent pads to clean the oil, and as the waters recede will cut and collect the impacted grasses, he said.
Roberts said he doubts that oil will get to the actual river channel, 1.2 miles away, but it depends on how much gets tied up in the vegetation and whether river conditions change.
A second well owned by Zavanna has what appears to be a sheen coming off of it in a photo taken late Friday by a Williston aerial photographer.
Cleanup crews also surrounded that well with absorbent booms, as well as two other Zavanna wells.
The floodwaters should be receding from the well sites that were surrounded with water, said Allen Schlag, hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Bismarck.
“We have seen significant improvement closer to the Montana border, and somewhat improved conditions south of Williston,” Schlag said.
The Missouri River at Williston was at about 24.8 feet late Monday, nearly 1½ feet lower than it had been Friday, said the National Weather Service.
Water levels could still rise if ice were to jam in the Williston area, Schlag said.
Nine wells were inundated with floodwaters Friday, when state officials did an aerial inspection. The number reduced to six Monday, Ritter said.
If water on those well sites has a petroleum sheen on it, companies will be required to pump out the water and send it to a disposal well, Roberts said.
If the water does not have a sheen, the health department recommends testing the water, and if it’s not contaminated, they can pump it over the dikes, Roberts said.
Department of Mineral Resources inspectors will be working with the health department to visit each site and assess whether appropriate precautions were taken and whether enforcement action is warranted, Ritter said.