BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — A Montana company fined $500,000 for improper sewage disposal in the western North Dakota oil patch is abandoning the practice of applying the waste to farmland because the company says it is impractical
With frozen ground in the winter, it is difficult to comply with regulations such as a requirement that the septic tank wastewater be spread over a large area, Hurley Enterprises spokesman Dave Gorham said. The Fairview, Mont., company is turning to wastewater lagoons as more of them come online, he said. The disposal violations for which the company was fined occurred in 2011 and 2012, when Gorham says there were fewer lagoon options.
"I really feel that a lot of this is just growing pains for North Dakota (and) the Health Department," he said. "We're not really upset with the Health Department, though the fines were exorbitant."
The department also fined another company, Stanley-based MonDak Water and Septic Service, $200,000 for similar offenses. Such fines have been uncommon, but "the increased (drilling) activity out in the west has just multiplied all potential violations or activities of this sort," state Water Quality Director Dennis Fewless said. "This is just a whole new issue that we're dealing with."
North Dakota last year passed Alaska to become the second-leading oil-producing state in the nation, trailing only Texas. New technology has opened up the vast Bakken shale formation to production, leading to a huge jump in the number of oil rigs and crew camps. Drilling rigs reached a record 218 in May 2012.
That has led to a big increase in the amount of septic waste that needs disposal. Fewless did not have data on the amount of waste involved in the Hurley and MonDak violations but said drivers for the companies violated waste disposal rules a total of more than 150 times.
"They were not properly applying this on farmland," he said. "If you properly apply on farmland it can be beneficially used; it's an appropriate way to handle waste. They were putting it on fields or on severe slopes and not spreading it. They were just driving out in the field, stopping and just dumping the waste in one spot and on slopes where it had the potential to run off and impact water."
No environmental damage was documented, Fewless said.
Gorham said drivers who tried to spread the waste often faced the prospect of getting stuck in fields, and that dumping the waste on slopes was an honest attempt to get it to flow downhill and spread on its own.
"Most of this is because of the volumes we're dealing with," he said. "If everyone had stopped land applications and went to lagoons, they would have had to shut down oil sites, because there weren't enough lagoons.
"We take this very seriously but I think it's the nature of the beast," Gorham said.
MonDak, which did not respond to an Associated Press request for comment, has developed wastewater treatment lagoons as part of its settlement with the state, and half of Hurley's fine will go toward developing a septic tank pumper compliance training program.
"This is just a whole new venture out there," Fewless said.
Gorham questioned whether the state is putting too much pressure on the septic tank pumping industry to come up with solutions.
"We need to work together and come up with a better way to do it," he said.
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