WASHINGTON, Sept. 22 (Reuters) – Pipeline operator Summit Midstream Partners (SMLP.N) pleaded guilty Wednesday in federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota, to criminal charges of water pollution resulting from what prosecutors are calling the largest land-based oil drilling spill.
The company has agreed to pay $ 36.3 million to settle the criminal charges, as well as the parallel civil charges filed by the US government and the state of North Dakota.
The company admitted to criminal negligence when in August 2014, 29 million gallons (132 million liters) of produced water, hydraulic fracturing waste, spilled from its pipeline near Williston, in the North Dakota, contaminating groundwater as well as more than 30 miles (48.28 km) of tributaries of the Missouri River.
The water produced by this drilling method contained high concentrations of saline solution, as well as petroleum, radioactive substances and pollutants such as ammonia, aluminum and arsenic,
among others, say prosecutors.
The spill continued for five months before it was finally contained and reported to the federal government, as required by the Clean Water Act.
Email evidence obtained by government investigators shows company officials and contractors were aware of numerous blowouts while the pipeline was pressure tested, with one inspector claiming at one point the company was using test pressures lower than recommended.
“What is known is that the installation was negligent and the failure was consistent with negligent installation,” the government wrote in court documents.
In a statement when the plea deal was first announced in August, Summit Director General Heath Deneke said: “We have accepted responsibility for the discharge of water produced at the Blacktail Creek site from the start. and have worked diligently over the past seven years on efforts to fully address the region’s environmental impacts. “
The plea agreement marks one of the most significant environmental law enforcement actions taken by the Department of Justice’s Environment and Natural Resources Division since President Joe Biden took office.
During Donald Trump’s presidency, environmental criminal prosecutions declined dramatically.
According to data analyzed by Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, in fiscal 2019 there were 302 environmental lawsuits – fewer than any year under the Obama, Bush or Clinton administrations.
During the Trump administration, the division was headed by Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark, a conservative who frequently clashed with career lawyers within the division over his narrow interpretations of quality laws. air and potable water.
On his last day of work, Clark issued a series of orders, including one calling on the division to largely refrain from bringing environmental criminal or civil cases, noting that many violations “should be dealt with and resolved. without federal involvement ”.
The note was quashed after Clark left, and he has since come under scrutiny by Congress for an unsuccessful attempt to oust then Acting Attorney General Jeff Rosen so that he can launch an investigation to help reinforce Trump’s false claims that the election was stolen.
The division’s new deputy attorney general, Todd Kim, is a department veteran who is expected to strengthen law enforcement and support efforts to protect low-income and minority communities from environmental damage.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch in Washington Editing by Marguerita Choy
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