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Oil companies face millions in fines

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Oil companies face millions in fines
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BISMARCK (AP) -- Nineteen oil companies working in North Dakota's oil patch face fines totaling several million dollars for failing to protect waste pits from spring flooding, state regulators and health officials said Wednesday.

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Lynn Helms, the director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, told The Associated Press that 47 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. Williston, in the heart of the state's oil patch, had nearly 100 inches of snow this year, topping the previous high of about 95 inches set in 1895, the National Weather Service said.

Helms said at least five swamped sites will be fined more than $500,000 each because no action was taken to prevent the spills.

"Their response to the cleanup also was very slow or inadequate," he said.

Owners of 40 of the sites will be fined a minimum of $12,500, he said.

Complaints against the companies will be filed soon, and the total amount of the combined fines is still being tallied, officials said Wednesday.

Runoff from the waste pits, which are about the size of a large swimming pool and can contain oil, diesel, drilling muds and chemicals, has not threatened drinking water sources, said Dennis Fewless, director of water quality for the state Health Department.

"Having said that, there will be a continual process of testing," he said.

Cleanup is still going on at many of the spill sites and could take months, officials said. They said the number of polluted acres is still unknown.

Glenn Wollan, a field supervisor with the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, said New York City-based Hess Corp. accounted for nearly a third of the reported spills. Hess is one of the oldest operators in North Dakota's oil patch, first tapped 60 years ago.

Runoff from one site owned by Hess in Williams County made its way to Lake McCleod, near Ray, officials said.

Representatives for Hess did not immediately return calls for comment Wednesday. The company has said before that the bulk of their reported spills were contained at the site where they occurred.

Hess has said that less than three barrels of oil or drilling mud made it into Lake McCleod, and that cleanup was being done to skim pollution off the lake.

Regulators warned oil companies by telephone and by letter to in March to build dikes and take other precautions to prevent overflow of the open pits due to runoff.

Fewless, of the state Health Department, said some companies appear to have ignored the warnings.

"Frankly, some of these companies didn't feel we could get this amount of runoff, but Mother Nature proved we can," he said.

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