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Company pleads guilty to criminal charges for largest oilfield spill in North Dakota history

Summit Midstream Partners pleaded guilty to criminal charges in federal court on Wednesday, Sept. 22, and agreed to pay $15 million in criminal fines.

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Crews work to recover oil from Blacktail Creek north of Williston, N.D., on Sunday, Jan. 25, 2015, after a pipeline leak released nearly 3 million gallons of saltwater that included some oil. Photo courtesy of Environmental Protection Agency
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BISMARCK — A federal judge on Wednesday, Sept. 22, accepted a guilty plea, which comes with a $15 million criminal penalty, from a company responsible for spilling 29 million gallons of produced fracking water near Williston, North Dakota.

Summit Midstream Partners pleaded guilty for causing a spill of produced water for almost five months in 2014 and into 2015. The leak ultimately contaminated more than 30 miles of Missouri River tributaries and spilled 700,000 barrels of produced water — what is believed to be the largest inland spill in history, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

On Wednesday, Summit pleaded guilty to two charges in violation of the the Clean Water Act for causing the spill and for failing to report it.

With the plea, Summit admitted to negligence that caused 700,000 barrels of produced water and "harmful" quantities of oil to leak from one of its pipelines, as well as a failure to stop the spill. The company also admitted that it failed to immediately report the spill, knew oil had been discharged and acted knowingly in violation of the Clean Water Act's Oil Pollution Prevention Provision.

U.S. District Judge Daniel Traynor accepted the company's guilty plea in federal district court in Bismarck and ordered a presentencing report. A sentencing hearing was not set on Wednesday.

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Concurrent with the $15 million criminal penalty, Summit also agreed to pay $20 million in a settlement with the federal government and state of North Dakota — marking $35 million total in fines and penalties for the oilfield spill.

The federal government said Summit's negligence dates back to when the pipeline that produced the spill was built in 2013, according to the case's affidavit. Several portions of the pipeline, including the section where the leak occurred, were installed without a representative of the manufacturer on site. The company did not closely follow the pipeline's installation guide, the affidavit states.

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Crews dig up land at a saltwater spill site near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, North Dakota, in this file photo. A North Dakota health official called the 70,000 barrel spill the state’s largest during the state’s current oil boom. Zack Nelson / Williston Herald

The affidavit also highlights negligent operation of the pipeline, including an incident in 2014 when Summit employees noted a drop in the pipeline's pressure, which is indicative of a leak. A facilities engineer said they may want to consider shutting down the pipeline in light of the low pressure, but Summit continued its operation.

Employees told investigators that Summit's focus was on rapid expansion, so "environmental compliance was not made a top priority," according to the affidavit.

"At various points in time, Summit had opportunities to discover and stop the leak," the affidavit states.

Summit also admitted it did not share all information about the volume and duration of the spill to federal and state authorities. The company initially reported 70,000 barrels spilled over a 10-day period, but the spill actually encompassed more than 700,000 barrels over 143 days.

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In a statement last month, Summit said it spent nearly $75 million on cleanup and safety improvement in the years since the incident.

Under the plea agreement, Summit waived its right to appeal the court's sentence, Traynor said on Wednesday. Summit will also be on three years of probation, during which it must comply with environmental laws.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Michelle Griffith, a Report for America corps member, at mgriffith@forumcomm.com.

1486074+0127 Pipelines.jpg
Crews dig up land at a saltwater spill site near Blacktail Creek outside Williston, North Dakota, in this file photo. A North Dakota health official called the 70,000 barrel spill the state’s largest during the state’s current oil boom. Zack Nelson / Williston Herald

Michelle (she/her, English speaker) is a Bismarck-based journalist for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and Report for America, a national service organization that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered topics and communities.
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