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Published January 28 2013

Forum editorial: Regulators expose a stinker

To the surprise of many observers, there appears to be at least one agency of North Dakota state government willing to fine oil companies for fouling the land. Last week regulators in the Department of Health announced that two firms have agreed to pay a total of $700,000 for illegal sewage dumping in the Oil Patch. It’s a stiff fine by usual North Dakota standards, although in comparison to the kind of money being generated by oil country companies, it’s not all that big. When it comes to what’s going on in the Oil Patch, not much is “usual.”

Fined were Hurley Enterprises of Fairfield, Mont., ($500,000) and MonDak Septic Services of Stanley, N.D., ($200,000). Additionally, drivers involved in the dumping will each pay penalties of $1,500. The companies violated regulations by improperly disposing of septic tank contents from crew camps and drilling rigs sites. And we’re talking here about huge dumps of potentially toxic and clearly polluting human waste.

For example, the head of the department’s Water Quality Division said the multiple discharges were so large and frequent that they formed “erosion gullies” on the landscape. Some of the discharges from tanker trucks were into ravines and coulees that drain into streams, creeks or stock ponds. The state said no harm to aquatic species or waterways was documented, but “there certainly was the potential.”

And what’s the response from a consultant on Hurley’s payroll? Essentially, it boils down to it’s the state’s fault. He said he didn’t want to blame the state, but then he did. “Let’s face it,” said Dave Gorham, “somebody permitted all those wells.” (That would be the state.) He said the associated problem of waste disposal should have been anticipated by officials. (That would be state officials.) “The problem is one hand didn’t know what the other hand was doing.” (Those would be state hands.)

Maybe that’s all true. But certainly the dirty hands of the two offending companies knew what they were doing. When the volume of sewage was so great it was creating its own gullies and rills, surely someone knew that the operation was a literal and figurative illegal stinker.

Both companies are working to develop better disposal methods, including training their workers. That’s good news; and given the fines, it’s likely the companies will find legal disposal options. But the excuses the companies used to explain violations of health and environmental regulations suggest a cavalier attitude about the land and water. These guys got caught. How many have not?

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Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.