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Leak coats 10 acres near South Heart in oil mist

Employees of Denver-based Fidelity Exploration and Production Co. spray down storage tanks Thursday at a drill site northwest of South Heart after pressurized oil became airborne and settled over approximately 10 acres the previous afternoon.

SOUTH HEART -- As employees of a Denver-based drilling company vigorously sprayed down oil-glazed equipment on a rig northwest of South Heart on Thursday, a concerned landowner sat quietly in a nearby pick-up and gazed at the discolored chunk of his land blanketed by an oil spill that took place the previous afternoon.

Mike O'Bach of South Heart said he was told a plug or gasket failed at approximately 2 p.m. Wednesday, causing pressurized oil to shoot out from the rig and become airborne. He believes strong winds then carried oil mist over to his fields.

O'Bach added that he is worried the spill could have harmful effects on the surrounding environment because oil settled on both sides of 34th Street, near a dam and wetlands.

"I'm kind of concerned there about water contamination," O'Bach said. "This will eventually drain into the Heart River."

Tim Rasmussen, spokesman for Fidelity Exploration and Production Co., the group operating at the site, said oil mist reached approximately 10 acres of surrounding farmland. He also said the company is doing everything it can to tidy up.

"As soon as we found out (about the spill), we self-reported to the appropriate regulatory agencies," Rasmussen said, adding that the North Dakota Industrial Commission examined the site this week. "A cleanup is under way as we speak."

Commission representatives estimated the spill contained one barrel of oil and one barrel of water, Rasmussen said.

"You have droplets of oil," he added.

Oil companies operating in the area have typically been speedy in cleaning up after spills, said Mark Sexton, minerals and lands program manager for the U.S. Forest Service.

"The trouble with it is it's oil and it's black and it generally looks a lot worse than what it truly is," Sexton said. "Ultimately, what you're trying to do is get (oil) lifted and get it gone."

Depending on oil density and the mix of vegetation, weather and soil types, there are many different ways to eradicate residual oil, he said. Companies often remove oil by digging up soaked soil, burning oil-covered ground or sucking up concentrated oil residue, he added.

But cleanup could get expensive. Sexton said some companies have paid as much as $2 million to fix a spill.

"It's got a price tag to it," he said.

Rasmussen maintains Wednesday's incident was a "small spill."

"I wouldn't want to mislead anyone to think that there's this pool of shimmering oil over that acreage," he said.