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Officials consider waste pit ban

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BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota is mulling a ban of oil waste pits amid a spate of toxic drilling discharges and an increasing number of migrating birds that have died by mistaking the polluted ponds for fresh water.

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Lynn Helms, the director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said Thursday that regulations may be changed requiring oil companies to recycle liquid drilling wastes instead of dumping them in open pits.

The so-called closed loop system that would allow only dry material to be stored on site may be cheaper for companies in the long run, Helms said

"There are lots of problems associated with open pits," Helms said. "Companies that have closed-loop systems at their sites are breaking even or are even saving some money because the reclamation costs are so much lower."

Helms said a review is under way to make oil companies go pitless and a rule change could happen within a year. Only New Mexico, which also forbids dry material to be placed at an oil site, would have more stringent rules than North Dakota if the state's regulations are changed, he said.

Open oil waste pits are susceptible to flooding, and can threaten drinking water supplies and soil.

State regulators and health officials announced last week that 19 oil companies working in North Dakota's oil patch face fines totaling several million dollars for failing to protect waste pits from overland spring flooding.

Helms said that 47 of the state's 500 waste ponds were swamped this spring by meltwater from one of the state's snowiest winters on record. The waste pit breaches came after widespread warnings of the spring flood potential following heavy snowfall across the state.

The polluted ponds also can lure unsuspecting wildlife. Federal authorities in just the past two weeks have collected more birds killed from oil operations in North Dakota than were found all last year in the state's booming oil patch.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist Micah Reuber said officials found at least one dead bird at nearly half of the two dozen oil well sites surveyed this month. Last year, only six birds were found at about 110 sites, he said.

Dead birds this year were found in oil waste lagoons, on drill rig sites and in areas where pollution escaped from the waste ponds, Reuber said. Most of the dead birds found this year were ducks that landed on the polluted waste pits, he said.

"From a birds-eye view, every little depression looks the same," Reuber said. "If they happen to land on an oil pit, it's over."

Companies can face federal fines from a few hundred dollars to $15,000 if birds are killed or injured from an oil operation. Fines can jump to $250,000 and bring felony charges for killing endangered species.

The Fish and Wildlife Service estimates up to 1 million birds are killed each year in the U.S. from oil pits. The agency said 34 oil companies have been cited in North Dakota since 1998 for oiled avians.

A New Town woman is nursing Duxter, a mature male mallard, back to health after the migrating duck got coated with crude, apparently mistaking an oil waste pit for a pond.

Shelly Ventsch found Duxter last week, floundering in a mudhole, sopped with oil and unable to fly or walk. Ventsch, a lifelong birdwatcher, has been keeping the duck in her bathtub and cleaning the bird regularly.

"I think he'll make it," Ventsch said. Duxter would be luckier than the dead duck Ventsch found earlier this month near her home.

"That one was pretty well preserved, all shellacked with oil," she said. "It could have been dead since last fall."

Three oil rigs are working within 2 miles of where the ducks were found, and Ventsch suspects the birds got in oil waste pits at the sites.

North Dakota requires that netting and fencing be erected at oil waste pits within 90 days after a drill rig has moved off the site.

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