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Williams County objects to lowering fine for state’s largest brine spill

WILLISTON, N.D. -- While state officials have signaled they will likely back-track on a record $2.4 million fine for the state’s largest brine spill in history, county officials are saying not so fast.

Williams County Commissioners unanimously approved a measure opposing lower fines for the brine spill at Blacktail Creek and have directed the county’s attorney Karen Prout to write a letter to state regulators outlining their objections to lowering the fine.

The Blacktail Creek spill was announced Jan. 6, but regulators say the ruptured pipeline may have been leaking as early as October. The pipeline was part of a gathering system for produced water and was being fed by about 40 wells in the area.

The spill leaked an estimated 3 million gallons of brine in the Blacktail Creek area, contaminating both the creek and surrounding soils. Blacktail feeds into the Little Muddy and ultimately the Missouri, which supplies drinking water to the area.

Regulators say the contamination didn’t reach the Missouri River in detectable concentrations.

Bakken brine is 13 to 15 times saltier than the ocean. While it didn’t reach drinking supplies, a brine spill of such magnitude raises many concerns in an agricultural community aside from the threat to drinking water.

The state had announced a record $2.4 million fine for the spill, but almost immediately began backpedaling on the amount, saying they are still negotiating a final settlement and suggesting a reduced fine is leverage to extract a better cleanup.

Typically the end result of such negotiations has been 10 percent of the original proposed amount — a trend that was lampooned not too long ago in a commentary by Jamie Oliver. He suggested North Dakotans were being to nice in general, and too nice about oil spills in particular.

“I don’t know how to describe the state’s attitude toward spills,” Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil said. “They have a penalty system in place and usually settle them for a small percentage of the penalty. As we all know, things have changed in the state. This is a moment in time when we need to re-examine that attitude, that leniency.”

Kalil said the alliance between the state and the oil and gas industry needs to be reconsidered.

“When we have a spill of this magnitude, it behooves us to give the state notice that no, we don’t believe the penalty should be lower in this situation,” Kalil said. “From what I read, that pipeline leaked fro three months and no one caught it. When are we going to move beyond allowing these things to happen and then not doing anything about them afterwards?”

Commissioner Martin Hanson pointed out the state is already talking about lowering the fine, and Commissioner Wayne Aberle suggested the state will leave it to landowners to extract what they can for the damages.

“They are not that strict,” Aberle said. “And this is one that’s going to go on for a long time.”

“From what I’m told here, you’re looking at five-year increments, with five being the shortest,” Hanson agreed. “Then it’s 10 and 20 years. It takes a long time to straighten these things out.”

“I don’t think it’s even possible to clean that one up back to where it was,” Commissioner Barry Ramberg said.

The company has said it will take three to four years to finish cleaning up, saying there are several mitigating factors in favor of a shorter time frame, among them that the spill occurred in winter, which kept it from migrating as far into the groundwater system as it might have.

They have since put containment measures in place to keep the contamination in place while they pump it out of the ground water and wash or remove the contaminated soils. Those efforts are at a standstill for the winter, but will begin again in the spring.

Williams County Chairman David Montgomery asked the county’s attorney Karen Prout whether Williams County, as a home rule charter county, can adopt an ordinance to levy fines on future such spills in their jurisdiction.

“I’d have to look into it,” she said.

“I know we have the ability to adopt ordinances,” Montgomery said. “but I’m just curious whether we can adopt something related to that.”

With that a motion was made to craft a letter raising the county’s objections to lowering the fine for the Blacktail creek spill, and passed unanimously without further discussion.