BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) -- Two companies fined more than half a million dollars by the state of North Dakota for improperly dumping sewage in the western oil patch have reached an agreement with federal prosecutors to pay more fines.
Fairview, Mont.-based Hurley Enterprises and Stanley-based MonDak Water and Septic Service each have agreed to pay $50,000 to resolve federal charges of illegally disposing of domestic sewage sludge, according to federal court documents unsealed late Tuesday.
The plea agreements are expected to become final next month. U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon said it will be the first felony conviction of its kind in the state and is believed to be the second such federal case in the nation resulting in felony charges. His office worked with the state Health Department and Attorney General's Office on the case, which involved violations of state regulations and also the federal Clean Water Act.
"This is a ground-breaking application of the Clean Water Act in North Dakota and it is evidence that (the Justice Department) will use all the tools at our disposal to punish those who violate the law and to protect the water, air and wildlife in western North Dakota," Purdon told The Associated Press.
Thomas Kelly, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in environmental cases and is representing both companies, said they decided not to fight the charges.
"There are legal arguments that could have been pursued but we decided, really, to take the high road, and I think benefit the state," he said.
Court documents accuse the companies of carelessness and claim MonDak dumped the sewage with such force that it dug a more-than-2-foot ditch into a farm field.
Purdon said the case was investigated by Environmental Protection Agency agents stationed in Helena, Mont., who often drove 10 hours one way to work with federal and state investigators in North Dakota. There are no EPA investigators in North Dakota.
As part of the settlements, Hurley is developing a training program for septic waste haulers and MonDak is developing wastewater treatment lagoons, which Kelly said will be available to other septic haulers and will reduce the need for land applications.
Disposing of human waste from oil rig sites and crew camps by dumping it on land is a common and legal practice, as long as companies follow regulations such as a requirement that the waste be spread. The two companies were accused of not spreading waste and allowing it to pool, and of dumping it on slopes and threatening water resources. Regulators documented more than 150 violations between the two companies in 2011 and 2012 but said no environmental damage was found.
Hurley spokesman Dave Gorham said earlier this week that no one was prepared for the rapid growth of sewage volume in the booming oil patch, where the number of drilling rigs surpassed 200 and set a record last year. North Dakota has leapfrogged Alaska to become the nation's second-leading oil-producer.
Kelly said there has been confusion among septic waste haulers about proper disposal procedures but that the two companies did not feel unfairly targeted. They cooperated with both state and federal regulators, and the training and lagoon measures will be beneficial, he said.
"I think it's addressing a problem that's going to be there for quite some time while the oil boom continues," Kelly said.
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