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By James MacPherson, Associated Press Writer, Published March 01 2010

Controversial North Dakota compost business gets permit

BISMARCK – A Montana man believes he has found the perfect place to compost oil sludge with cow manure and other organic waste: North Dakota.

Environmental regulators in Montana forced Dale Leivestad to close an operation that turned manure, straw and unsalable crude oil to compost, saying it made a mess.

So Leivestad wants to start a sludge-to-compost facility a few miles over the border in sparsely populated Bowman County, where he has the blessing of the state Health Department.

“It’s going to be a very safe place to ply our trade,” said Leivestad, who plans to compost oil waste on 140 acres of land he owns a few miles south of Marmarth. “But I don’t know how people feel about us doing business in Bowman County.”

Some locals say the plan stinks.

“Their claim is sludge is less harmful than toothpaste,” said Jim Miller, a Bowman County rancher. “Why don’t they take that sludge behind the state Capitol if they think it’s so clean and fantastic?”

Miller and other residents will have a chance to voice worries at a public hearing on Thursday in Bowman, in Bowman County.

Locals in Slope and Bowman counties and the Sierra Club say they’ll fight the plan for the facility, based on Leivestad’s history in Montana.

“There are grave concerns out here,” Miller said. “Just because we’re rural and there aren’t many people out here doesn’t mean we don’t want clean air and water.”

Slope and Bowman counties in North Dakota’s southwest corner have the distinction of being among the nation’s least populated counties. Both have fewer than 1,000 residents, county officials say.

Miller worries runoff from the proposed composting facility could leach into ground water and into the Little Missouri River less than two miles away. The river runs north into Slope County and eventually drains into the Missouri River.

Leivestad’s Baker, Mont.-based Petrocomp operated the oil sludge-to-compost business for more than a decade at the Coral Creek Landfill, which is owned by Montana’s Fallon County.

Leivestad’s company was told to stop operations there three years ago after state regulators found violations for failing to manage the site properly, including failing to contain water runoff.

Tom Barth, the Fallon County landfill manager, said it took several months and nearly $200,000 of county money to clean up the site.

Leivestad said he has worked with North Dakota regulators for three years crafting a new operating plan.

“The overall plan has changed substantially, and I think we have a very good plan to offer here,” Leivestad said.

The oil waste comes from crude oil storage tanks in the Dakotas and Montana, he said.

Instead of dumping oil field waste on piles of organic material, Leivestad said he will use a centrifuge machine that separates liquids and solids. Oil from the process will be resold, and water and other liquids will be injected into underground wells. The solid waste will be hauled to Leivestad’s site near Marmarth and mixed with organic waste.

The centrifuge and wells are located near Baker, Mont.

North Dakota already has three sludge-to-compost facilities in the northwest part of the state, said Scott Radig, the state Health Department’s waste management director.

“He’s acknowledged he’s had some problems over there,” Radig said of Leivestad’s business in Montana. “He’s come up with a plan that meets solid waste requirements in North Dakota, at least we think it does.”

Leivestad has been testing the process over the past several months and is shipping solid waste to an industrial waste dump near Sawyer in north-central North Dakota. Leivestad said hauling the waste to southwest North Dakota will cut down on his transportation costs and will be environmentally cleaner because it ultimately will be composted.

Radig said he was not aware that Leivestad had already been shipping solid waste to North Dakota.

“It’s not necessarily pertinent to this permit,” Radig said.

Miller, the rancher in Bowman County, said locals believe Leivestad’s plan already is a done deal with the state. Radig said the state will weigh all comments before issuing a permit.

Radig said Leivestad’s operation will be closely monitored and he must post a line of credit of more than $500,000 for any cleanup costs.

Miller said that amount of money “won’t even pay for a study for the cleanup.”

Wayde Schafer, a North Dakota spokesman for the Sierra Club, said his group intends to submit written comments opposing the plan based on Leivestad’s history in Montana.

“This is a potentially disastrous project,” Schafer said. “You’d want someone squeaky clean and responsible running it, but based on this operator’s track record, it doesn’t make him a very good candidate.”

Joni Sonsalla, who lives near Marmarth in Slope County, said she and others in the neighboring county strongly object to the project.

“Anybody who cares about land is going to be opposed to it,” she said. “He absolutely destroyed land over in Montana and now he wants to come here. Apparently, nobody has learned anything.”