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Officials: Oil companies ignored warnings

BISMARCK (AP) -- North Dakota regulators say some oil companies may have ignored their warnings to protect oil waste pits from spring flooding and failed to take action that could have prevented some of nearly three dozen spills in recent weeks.

Thirty-two waste ponds -- each about the size of a large swimming pool -- were swamped in recent weeks by meltwater from one of the state's snowiest winters on record, said Glenn Wollan, a field supervisor with the North Dakota Oil and Gas Division. The spills came even though regulators notified companies well before the spring thaw to protect the pits from runoff with dikes.

"The situation is that some companies may have heeded the warning but didn't do enough and some others maybe didn't do a thing," Wollan said. Some companies may face fines, he said.

The spills were reported by 13 companies, with New York City-based Hess Corp. accounting for 17 of the 32 spills, Wollan said. The number of polluted acres is still unknown and cleanup could take months, he said.

A Hess spokeswoman said most of its reported spills were contained at the site where they occurred.

Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, said no one could have predicted the amount of runoff from the heaviest snow in more than a century.

"With all the serious flooding going on in other areas of the state, this is as much a natural disaster as anywhere in the state," said Ness, whose group represents more than 250 companies in North Dakota's oil patch. "I think a lot of these just got tsunamied. I don't think anybody saw this coming."

North Dakota's oil production has boomed in recent years on the strength of new drilling techniques that have unlocked oil from a shale rock formation called the Bakken and development elsewhere. The state expects to collect more than $2 billion in oil taxes during the next two years, but the boom has come with environmental costs including well fires, spills and water overuse and contamination. State officials have acknowledged a struggle to adequately oversee the industry due to staffing limitations.

Runoff from the waste pits, which 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.

Fewless called the spills a wake-up call and said they showed that regulators and industry need "to sit down and figure out how we can do a better job -- nobody wants to deal with an aftermath like this because it costs everybody resources and time."

A March 11 letter obtained by The Associated Press shows state regulators warned oil companies to "take precautions ... to prevent the overflow of any open pits before the snow starts to melt." The melt began in earnest in late March.

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.

Lynn Helms, the director of the state Department of Mineral Resources, said companies should have pumped out the waste ponds and built dikes around them "so snowmelt can't get in the pits and what's in the pits can't get out."

"Most of them responded and got their pits protected," Helms said.

Wollan said letters were sent to 56 companies known to have waste pits at a well site, including Hess. He said it was the first time regulators had sent such a warning. He said there are hundreds of waste pits in the oil patch.

Helms said an investigation would determine whether companies did all they could to prevent the pits from being hit by floodwaters.

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said any companies that didn't take action should be fined "or how else are they going to learn?"

"If they can't protect the public then they shouldn't be drilling for oil," Schafer said. "They just can't cross their fingers and hope for the best."

The breaches happened in five of the state's 17 oil-producing counties: Williams, Divide, Burke, Mountrail and Stark, Wollan said. About half of the spills were contained at the well sites, he said. The area is primarily a mix of farmland and pasture, and unchecked runoff from the spills would mainly have threatened streams.

Runoff from one site in Williams County made its way to Lake McCleod, near Ray, Wollan said.

Hess is the owner of that site. In its statement to the AP, Hess said less than three barrels of oil or drilling mud made it into the lake. The company has been working since April 13 to skim the pollution off the lake, said Stephanie Dedeaux, a company spokeswoman in Houston.

Ashley Lauth, a spokeswoman for the Dakota Resource Council, a Dickinson-based environmental group, said her group attempted to get legislation passed this year to abolish the containment ponds and instead require companies to store waste underground or in tanks to guard against runoff. She said the group could not find a lawmaker to sponsor the legislation.

Ness, of the state's oil industry group, said such a proposal would be too costly for oil companies and that the open waste pits are an accepted practice across the country.