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Disposal tanks near oilfield site still smoldering day after lightning started fire

A flare up of a Monday storage tank fire burns Tuesday, July 8, 2014, in Alexander, N.D. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor 2 / 2

ALEXANDER, N.D. – Randy Roth was in the Wild Bison Travel Center when he heard the explosion that rocked the building.

“I looked out and saw flames – 200 feet (high) maybe,” he said, recounting the scene after lightning struck the Helling Saltwater Disposal site three miles south of Alexander on Monday afternoon.

Roth, the store’s general manager, told the cashier to call 911 and made a beeline to the site, a short walk past the adjacent truck wash, to “make sure everything was OK and we weren’t in danger.”

Two men in a car “came buzzing out” from the oilfield site and told Roth everybody was out. He said he stood there until the Alexander Fire Department arrived.

Tuesday morning, a dark plume of black smoke could be seen miles from the site as workers from Absorbent and Safety Solutions, a spill response company, were working to contain and recover oil and saltwater released since late Monday afternoon.

By midday, thick smoke was punctuated by a fireball of red, yellow and orange.

As a result of the fire, the site’s primary containment system failed, allowing the release of saltwater and oil, according to a statement released by the state Department of Health.

About 649 barrels of oil and 2,813 barrels of saltwater were released, said McKenzie County Emergency Manager Jerry Samuelson. No injuries were reported.

The site, owned and operated by 1804 Operating, contained 11 tanks – nine saltwater and two oil. He said Monday that  all of the tanks were destroyed and payloaders were at the site building berms to try to contain the saltwater.

Some of the fluids flowed off the site but were contained before reaching a tributary of Lonesome Creek, the Department of Health wrote in the statement.

Trucker David Clayton of Wilmington, N.C., had parked his rig in the parking lot of Wild Bison on Monday. He had dozed off when he heard a “really loud boom” followed by a loud crash and a second boom.

“My first instinct was lightning,” Clayton said, adding the explosion sent a shockwave, as if the “whole truck lifted up off the ground.”

A “hard rainstorm” then hit the area, he said, the wind shaking his truck.

Roth said he had never seen anything like what he had witnessed Monday afternoon.

“I told my employees, ‘Do you know how close that was to us getting a lightning strike?’ ”

Samuelson said the fire at the disposal site is being allowed to burn itself out, with monitoring done by emergency response personnel.

State Department of Health personnel are inspecting the site and will work with the company on remediation.