Man pleads to illegal saltwater disposal charges
BISMARCK -- A Kalispell, Mont., man pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to 11 charges relating to the operation of a saltwater disposal well near Dickinson in an ongoing investigation that could result in more charges.
BISMARCK - A Kalispell, Mont., man pleaded guilty in federal court Friday to 11 charges relating to the operation of a saltwater disposal well near Dickinson in an ongoing investigation that could result in more charges.
Nathan Garber, 45, operated a well, into which more than 25,000 barrels of saltwater was injected, before the required state testing and even after internal testing showed the well couldn’t stand up to pressure and was a threat to drinking water.
Garber was convicted of one count of conspiracy to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act, five counts of violating the act, two counts of false statements, two counts of falsification of records and one count of concealment or cover-up of a tangible object.
North Dakota U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon said his office would seek federal prison time for Garber. A sentencing hearing has not been set.
“This is one of the most significant saltwater disposal well investigations in history,” Purdon said.
As part of the plea agreement, Garber will cooperate with investigators.
“The investigation is ongoing and we are looking at anybody who may have been involved in this well and the criminal violations that took place,” Purdon said.
The affidavit for Garber’s cases references, not by name, other people involved in the operation, including someone based in Texas upon whom Garber relied on for direction in converting the well to a disposal well. Garber told investigators he had “no doubt” this person knew what was happening at the well.
Garber admitted to using the well without first going through the North Dakota Industrial Commission-mandated inspection to ensure the well can stand up to the pressure of injections and won’t pollute groundwater. When in February 2012 an oilfield service company performed a pressure test on the well, after it had already been in operation illegally for a couple months, it failed the test. Still, Garber continued to inject saltwater in the ground.
When a state inspector told Garber not to continue using the well, he continued to do so anyway, and later gave false information to the inspector.
Purdon: Case shows need for permanent federal presence
Purdon pointed to the federal convictions as evidence for the need to permanently station federal Environmental Protection Agency criminal investigators in the Bakken.
The investigators’ closest office is currently in Helena, Mont. The EPA did recently sign an agreement to share workspace as needed with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Bismarck, but Purdon said cases like Garber’s show the need for them to be around all the time.
State investigators prosecuted the case against Garber in 2012 but it didn’t result in jail time.
In a related civil case, the state levied a $1.5 million fine against company Halek Operating, but much of that hasn’t been paid yet.
“With the tools that we bring to the table, we are able to achieve 11 felony convictions, a request for federal jail time and an ongoing investigation that might lead to additional charges,” Purdon said of the federal case against Garber.
“... It screams out for a permanent presence by environmental protection criminal investigators in the Bakken region area,” he said.
Lymn is a reporter for The Dickinson Press. Contact her at 701-456-1211.