North Dakota regulator reduces fine in radioactive oil waste dumping case by $780,000

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WILLISTON, North Dakota — A company tied to the illegal dumping of radioactive oil waste in an abandoned gas station in rural North Dakota will only pay cleanup costs — pending good behavior for a year — dramatically dropping their fine from $800,000 to $20,000.

Department of Mineral Resources spokeswoman Alison Ritter said her office came to an agreement with Zenith Produced Water LLC on Nov. 19 to suspend a large portion of the originally assessed fine in a case state officials have said may be the biggest incident of illegal dumping of radioactive filter socks.

In February, authorities found hundreds of filter socks dumped in an abandoned gas station in Noonan, a town of 200 people near the Canadian border. Authorities determined that Zenith was the owner of the filter socks, the tubular nets that strain liquids during the oil production process.

Ritter said the fine was reduced to $170,000, the amount that North Dakota's assistant attorney general believed could be sustained in court.

But right now, Zenith only has to pay $20,000 — the price the state paid on the cleanup of the site where the filter socks were discovered. If the company has any further violations within a year or fails to comply with other investigations into the incident, they must pay the remaining $150,000.

U.S. Attorney Tim Purdon says there is still an open federal investigation into the Noonan incident that involves his office, the Environmental Protection Agency's Criminal Investigation Division and the Department of Justice's Environment and Natural Resources Division.

Ritter said it is common practice for the Department of Mineral Resources to fine companies around 10 percent of the original fine as a way to ensure future compliance and cooperation.

"The suspension of the fine, it's not forgiveness," said Ritter. "They are required to stay in line and required not to have an additional offense."

Ritter said since 2011 the Department of Mineral Resources has handled more than 50 such cases and none of those companies have been repeat offenders.

Wayde Schafer, a Sierra Club spokesman in North Dakota, did not agree that low fines were an effective way to ensure compliance with environmental regulations.

"Unless the fines are stiff enough to act as deterrents, the companies will just factor it in as a price of doing business and it's not going to be very effective," he said.

The fine reduction was first reported by The Crosby Journal on Tuesday.

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