Feds charge oil companies with killing migratory birds in western N.D.

Seven oil companies operating in western North Dakota face federal charges of killing migratory birds that allegedly died when they landed in oilfield pits and wastewater disposal facilities.

A pintail takes flight from a wetland near Saskatoon, Sask., in this May 2005 photo. (Tami Heilman, U.S. Department of Interior photo)

Seven oil companies operating in western North Dakota face federal charges of killing migratory birds that allegedly died when they landed in oilfield pits and wastewater disposal facilities.

The charges under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act cite the losses of 28 ducks and other birds in oil waste pits between May 6 and June 20. Federal laws require pits to be bird-proofed with fences, screens and nets.

The violations "should be troubling to those interested in preserving North Dakota's rich heritage of hunting and fishing and to the many oil companies who work hard to follow the laws protecting our wildlife," U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said in a statement.

A dozen of the dead birds were found in pits operated by Slawson Exploration Co. of Wichita, Kansas, including three mallards, two gadwalls, two blue-winged teal, one redhead, one common golden eye, one northern pintail and two birds of unknown species.

Other companies charged are ConocoPhillips Co., of Houston; Newfield Production Co., of Houston; Brigham Oil and Gas LP, of Williston; Continental Resources Inc., of Enid, Okla.; Fidelity Exploration & Production Co., of Denver; and Petro Hunt LLC, of Dallas.


Ron Ness, president of the North Dakota Petroleum Council, an industry association, said that protecting wildlife "is something the oil companies take seriously."

But "you've got a lot of pits out there," he said. "There are nearly 6,000 wells out there. They don't all have areas these birds can be attracted to, but there are hundreds and hundreds of such sites."

Also, "We don't know how many birds are killed on roadways, how many are killed by power lines, and how many were lost because of flooding on the Missouri and Souris rivers," Ness said.

"You net these pits and do all these things, but the reality of putting a net out in North Dakota, with the winds we have, and all sorts of things happen."

The Associated Press reported that none of the companies immediately responded to requests for comments.

The charges come after a plea issued last week by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for operators in North Dakota's oilfields to step up efforts to prevent depredation of migratory birds in skim pits, reserve pits and oilfield wastewater disposal facilities.

The U.S. attorney's office said the cases cited in today's release were investigated by the Fish and Wildlife Service.

With the onset of fall migration approaching, the service warned last week that as many as 1 million birds are killed annually in oilfield production areas, including ducks, hawks, owls and songbirds, as well as bats, small mammals and big game.


Noting that many oilfield operators use netting to keep birds and other wildlife from pits, the wildlife service said those nets require intensive maintenance. "Pits or ponds with nets sagging into the pit fluids are just as lethal to birds as oil pits with no netting," the service said in a statement released last week.

Studies have shown that other methods used by oilfield operators to deter birds and other wildlife from pits, such as metal reflectors and flashing strobe lights, are not effective.

Prevention of small spills, the proper securing of hoses, valves and containers, and immediate cleanup of spilled oil "will go a long way to preventing wildlife mortality in oil and gas production facilities," the service stated.

In their "Running With Oil" series last year, the Herald and other newspapers of Forum Communications Co. identified the impact on migratory birds as one of the potentially damaging side-effects of the oil boom.

Much wildlife habitat is being converted to oil drilling pads and roads, and the waste pits and spills pose deadly dangers to birds and other animals.

Ron Shupe, a retired wildlife biologist and head of the North Dakota chapter of the Wildlife Society's energy committee, said in the 2010 Forum Communications report that the industry had made great strides over the past 20 years "to develop technologies that are kinder to the environment," but that no state agency had the staff and resources to monitor long-term effects on wildlife of rapid oilfield development.

The maximum sentence for violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is six months in federal prison and a $15,000 fine, according to the U.S. attorney's office.

The seven companies charged are to make initial appearances in U.S. District Court in Bismarck on Sept. 22.


Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send email to .

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