In 2012, North Dakota state oil and gas regulators slapped a record $1.5 million fine on a drilling company for illegally dumping 20,000 barrels of toxic oilfield wastewater, potentially threatening nearby drinking water. Two years later, “the now-dissolved company is under federal investigation, the penalty is unpaid and the affected site is still contaminated,” the Associated Press reported.
Halek Operating ND LLC of Dickinson was fined for putting the area’s drinking water supplies at risk by dumping 800,000 gallons of oilfield wastewater into an empty oil well and then attempting to cover up the crime. At the time, the penalty was touted as a clear signal sent by regulators to operators regarding environmentally destructive practices. Administrative Law Judge Allen Hoberg told AP it was “among the most egregious violations ever pursued” by state regulators.
Many in the state, however, argue that it never should have gotten to that point. Halek and its owner had a prior history of criminal behavior stemming from failure to clean up an oilfield leak in 2011 and for involvement in a scheme that swindled investors in a Texas energy project. Those fines have not been paid and the state’s attorney general expressed doubt that the 2012 penalty would be paid in full either.
As oil and gas production booms across North Dakota, the state’s regulators have come under fire for failing to adequately supervise companies’ activity or to keep the public apprised of potentially hazardous situations. In fact, a report released last October found that nearly 300 oil spills and 750 “oil field incidents” had occurred in North Dakota since January 2012 and none were reported to the public.
In many instances, the potential threat to public health is largely unknown. For example, while the wastewater spilled in incidents such as Halek’s 2012 illegal dumping is often described as “saltwater,” Lisa Song with InsideClimate News explained that the waste, a byproduct of oil and gas production, “contains heavy metals in concentrations that might not meet drinking water standards” and can even contain radioactive material.
A recent report released by the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog, called on the Environmental Protection Agency to step up its regulation of practices associated with the disposal of wastewater from fracking operations. “Every day in the United States, at least 2 billion gallons of fluids are injected into over 172,000 wells to enhance oil and gas production, or to dispose of fluids brought to the surface during the extraction of oil and gas resources,” the report said. “Because much of the population relies on underground sources for drinking water, these wells have raised concerns about the safety of the nation’s drinking water.”
The underground injection of wastewater, another common industry practice, was also identified as an area that needs more attention from the EPA, as it has has been linked to increased earthquakes in several states.
The report noted that the EPA hasn’t updated its guidance regarding which activities are essential for oversight since the 1980s and doesn’t have adequate resources to inspect and monitor the rapidly increasing amount of fracking occurring in the U.S. The study examined eight states, but a Media Matters review of the top-circulating newspapers in the nation’s four biggest fracking states, including North Dakota, found that only one paper, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, reported on the GAO’s findings.
While lack of oversight and outdated regulations regarding the disposal of fracking wastewater poses a serious threat to drinking water supplies in multiple states, it’s rare to see offenders face serious punishment. A recent case in Ohio garnered headlines, however, when the owner of a small Ohio oil and gas drilling company who ordered his employees to dump tens of thousands of gallons of fracking waste into a creek was ordered to pay a $25,000 fine and was sentenced to 28 months in jail.