Saltwater disposal well operators sentenced to supervised release for violating Safe Drinking Water Act

Illegal well operations put drinking water, public health at risk in North Dakota

Posted November 29, 2017

In federal court in Bismarck, North Dakota, two saltwater disposal well operators were sentenced to three years supervised release and ordered to pay a fine of $50,000 on felony charges stemming from the operation of a saltwater disposal well. In addition, one of the defendants will spend up to one year in a halfway house.

Both defendants had previously pled guilty to violating the Safe Drinking Water Act by illegally discharging contaminated wastewater, which threatened the safety of drinking water and public health in North Dakota. The saltwater disposal well received brine and other wastes, commonly referred to as saltwater, from oil and gas operations. The term “saltwater” can cover a wide array of drilling waste fluids such as waste workover, completion, stimulation and pigging fluids, and enhanced recovery waters. Underground injection into a saltwater disposal well is prohibited without a permit. The permit, in turn, imposes requirements on the well’s operators to ensure that the saltwater does not impact underground sources of drinking water.

According to a factual statement previously filed in court, the defendants admitted to injecting saltwater into the well without first having the state witness a test of the well’s integrity. These tests protect groundwater by identifying possible leaks or fluid movement in the well. Although the well’s permit required that fluids be injected through the tubing, the defendants admitted to injecting fluids down the annulus (backside) of the well, which violated the permit. And the defendant also admitted to failing to provide written notice to the state of the date of the first injection into the well.

One of the defendants admitted to committing fraud by making false statements to the state about the injections. In addition, this defendant also moved a device called a “packer” up the wellbore without prior approval, in violation of the well’s permit. A properly placed packer maintains the well’s integrity and ensures wastewater does not escape into surrounding soil and groundwater. The defendant also gave false information to a state inspector regarding the depth of the packer.

The case was investigated by federal EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division along with the State of North Dakota and the North Dakota Industrial Commission. The case is being prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of North Dakota and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The defendants will face a future court hearing on restitution.

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