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Oil firm cited for water pollution

BISMARCK -- North Dakota health officials have cited an Oklahoma oil company, accusing it of polluting state waters and failing to quickly clean up the spills.

The state Department of Health announced Tuesday that it issued violation notices to Continental Resources Inc. for two separate incidents in April. Continental is one the oldest and biggest operators in North Dakota's booming oil patch in the western part of the state.

Court documents show that about 10 barrels of drilling mud and oil overflowed from a waste pit at one of the company's wells in Divide County and contaminated soil and water. In the second incident, about two barrels of oil spewed from a well in Williams County and spread to water, where one dead duck was discovered. A barrel is about 48 gallons.

Continental spokeswoman Kristin Miskovsky said the company received the notices of violations late Monday and could not comment on them.

Dave Glatt, chief of the health department's environmental health section, said fines could run up to $5,000 daily for violations. The company has about two weeks to respond to the violation notices, which include polluting state waters and failing to clean up the spills in a timely or sufficient manner.

Kris Roberts, an environmental geologist with the health department's water quality division, said no drinking water sources were threatened by either incident and the sites are now clean. He said runoff from the drilling mud spill in Divide County was caused by snowmelt and spring rains, and covered less than a quarter mile.

"It covered a considerable area," Roberts said. "It got into a little slough and almost got into a big slough."

Continental reported the spill on April 25 and said it had placed booms and pads to contain it, though an inspection more than a week later found the spill had migrated into a water drainage system, health officials said.

The spill at Continental's well in Williams County was reported by the company on April 2. Health officials said mist from the nearly 100 gallons of oil saturated snow up to 300 yards from the well site. As the snow melted, the oily runoff traveled through a meandering drainage for about a half mile, Roberts said.

Health department records show that no cleanup work had been done for at least two weeks and was not completely clean until more than a month after the spill was reported.

Continental, owned by billionaire oilman Harold Hamm, is the largest leaseholder in the Bakken shale formation, with about 900,000 acres in North Dakota and Montana. The company, which has been drilling in North Dakota for more than two decades, was among the first to tap a Bakken well in 2004 using horizontal drilling technology. The company was the first to drill a horizontal well in the underlying Three Forks formation in 2008.

The company extracted about 15.8 million barrels of oil from the Bakken and Three Forks in 2010, up from 5.1 million barrels in 2007.