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ND trucking company faces $2 million in fines in 2018 illegal dumping

Contamination from an illegal dumping incident has not been resolved since the incident occurred in 2018

A resurgence in North Dakota's Oil Patch spurred the fifth consecutive quarterly gain in sales tax collections, according to state figures. Unlike the oil boom, however, the current oil expansion hasn't fueled increases in the retail sector. Forum file photo
A resurgence in North Dakota's Oil Patch spurred the fifth consecutive quarterly gain in sales tax collections, according to state figures. Unlike the oil boom, however, the current oil expansion hasn't fueled increases in the retail sector. Forum file photo

BISMARCK — A North Dakota trucking company may face $2 million in fines for failing to clean up the damage from a 2018 illegal dumping incident, according to a complaint filed in May by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality.

Case documents indicate that on June 10, 2018, a landowner in Dunn County reported that a driver for SBT Inc., a small trucking outfit based in Utah but operating in North Dakota, had drained oil waste onto his property. Authorities were quick to respond to the scene and arrest the driver. The following day, a team of inspectors, including a representative from the Department of Environmental Quality, SBT officials and the landowner surveyed the site and determined that the driver had deposited approximately 100 barrels of salt water into the ground.

SBT was at first proactive in addressing its driver’s mess, rushing to the scene to assess the damage within hours, but the Department of Environmental Quality said communication with SBT broke down over the last year as the company seemed to back away from its cleanup responsibilities.

“Initially, the company was responsive in beginning remediation at the site. At some point their enthusiasm for the remediation seemed to wane,” said Karl Rockeman, the director of the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Quality, noting that cleanup at the spill site has stalled over the past six to nine months.

With the case nearing its statute of limitations in June, the Department of Environmental Quality opted to file a formal complaint. The complaint includes five counts against SBT: unpermitted discharge, polluting state waters, violating water quality standards, unpermitted waste hauling and improper disposal of waste.

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Oil waste spills are frequent occurrences in fracking country, and Rockeman stressed that the volume and damage of this incident are less remarkable than the company’s noncompliance. The Department of Environmental Quality has seen only “a handful” of similar illegal dumping cases in the past 10 years. “Generally we take these pretty seriously just because of the intentional nature of them,” Rockeman said. “Even one instance of this is just too many."

While cases of intentional dumping sometimes stem from bad actors or rogue drivers, Rockeman said that the blame typically lands further up the corporate ladder, where failures of employee education processes tend to leave drivers insufficiently trained in proper disposal protocol.

Environmentalists have also taken a hard line on law-flouting oil industry companies in recent years, and the stringent penalties for environmental negligence have typically succeeded at keeping companies within their boundaries. “Cutting corners and, of course dumping the drilling mud and the waste products illegally is just something that can’t be tolerated,” said the Sierra Club’s Wayde Schafer. "Those are the things that, I think, really (bother) people. We've got the oil, and companies are going to get it. And that's fine, but they just need to do it right."

Ira Smith, the president of SBT Inc., told The Forum in a phone interview that his company continues to cooperate with the state and still intends to finish the job. Smith said that his company acted immediately to address the problem in 2018, sinking $400,000 into the cleanup effort between that summer and September 2019. He also insisted that his company thoroughly trains each of its drivers, and that in this case the driver acted independently and in defiance of his training.

The driver was tried in a Dunn County criminal case in 2018, pleading guilty to felony violations and agreeing to pay more than half a million dollars in penalties.

But while Smith argues that SBT has done its due diligence throughout the cleanup process, he conceded that his communication with the Department of Environmental Quality lapsed during stretches of the last year. “They could say that I didn’t communicate properly there for a little bit. Yep,” he said, explaining that he “got a little upset” after chloride testing in September 2019 revealed persistent contamination at the site of the spill. After that, SBT packed up its remediation work for the winter.

The severity of damage to the local environment after a spill hinges on the response time of the cleanup, and Rockeman said the delay in SBT's response is especially concerning. But since filing their complaint in late May, Rockeman said that his office has resumed conversations with SBT, " so there may be some hopes there of resolving this in a timely manner.”

Smith insists that SBT is not abandoning the job, and that they are getting back to work for the summer.

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“We had a very good reputation until this incident,” he said. “We are going to take care of our responsibility. We are going to get this cleaned up. And we’re not running off anywhere.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report For America corps member, at awillis@forumcomm.com.

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