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Criminal case for largest oil field spill in North Dakota history resolves with $15M fine, probation

Summit Midstream Partners entered into a $36 million settlement agreement with the federal government and the state of North Dakota earlier this year after an investigation found the company allowed nearly 30 million gallons of contaminated water to spill in western North Dakota in 2014 and 2015.

Saltwater Leak
Crews work to recover oil from Blacktail Creek north of Williston, N.D., on Jan. 25 after a pipeline leak released nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater that included some oil. Environmental Protection Agency

BISMARCK — A federal judge sentenced the company responsible for North Dakota's largest ever oil field spill to $15 million in criminal fines and three years of probation on Monday, Dec. 6.

The sentence for Summit Midstream Partners was entered by U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Traynor and comes three months after the U.S. Department of Justice and the state of North Dakota announced a settlement agreement with the company totaling more than $36 million in criminal and civil penalties and natural resource damages.

Federal prosecutors charged Summit for negligence and violations of environmental laws in the spill of 29 million gallons of produced water — a highly concentrated salt fluid that is a byproduct of oil extraction — north of Williston over a five-month period in 2014 and 2015. The incident resulted in the contamination of land, groundwater and more than 30 miles of Blacktail Creek, a Missouri River tributary.

A federal investigation found Summit continued operating its produced water pipeline after multiple warning signs indicated a leak. In one instance, court records show, a drop in pressure prompted a facilities engineer to suggest shutting down the pipeline, but the company kept running it.

Summit pleaded guilty to the criminal charges in September . Later that month, Traynor approved $20 million in civil fines. No individuals have been charged

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Dave Glatt, director of the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, said cleanup at the site of the Summit spill is ongoing seven years after the incident. The stream rebounded well from the spill, Glatt said, but some groundwater in the area remains contaminated.

The spill is the largest in North Dakota history and also believed to be the biggest ever to occur on land anywhere in the country.

In addition to the criminal fine, Traynor approved a series of probation requirements aimed at ensuring Summit's adherence to environmental laws and mitigating possible future spills. Among the probationary penalties is a requirement that the company implement a system for employees to anonymously report leaks or breaches of environmental law.

Nearly 200 mailers were sent out this August to landowners near and downstream from the spill, a spokesman for the Department of Justice said, with two recipients claiming damages. Traynor opened a 90-day window for those two landowners to decide whether they want to pursue legal action against Summit.

No landowners appeared at Monday's hearing.

The $15 million out of Summit's criminal settlement will go into a federal fund for cleaning up oil spills. A $20 million fine in the civil settlement was split into two parts, with half going to the federal government and half going to North Dakota, largely to the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. The civil settlement also includes $1.3 million for natural resource damages.

In a statement this August, Summit president and CEO Heath Deneke acknowledged his company's responsibility for the damages and said they invested close to $75 million in cleanup and safety improvements at the spill site in the years since the incident.

Readers can reach reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com .

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