Pipeline Company Fined $15M for Largest U.S. Inland Oil Spill

WILLISTON, North Dakota, December 8, 2021 (ENS) – The pipeline company responsible for the discharge of 29 million gallons of oil-contaminated produced water – a waste product of hydraulic fracturing – has been sentenced to pay a $15 million criminal fine and serve a three year period of probation by U.S. District Court Judge Daniel Traynor in Williston. The spill is the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Summit Midstream Partners LLC based in Houston, Texas pleaded guilty to criminal charges that it violated the Clean Water Act, as amended by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, by negligently causing the discharge into U.S. waters in 2014, and deliberately failing to immediately report the spill to federal authorities as required.

More than 700,000 barrels were discharged in the incident, contaminating Blacktail Creek and nearby land and groundwater. By law, the federal fines in this case will go to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund used to respond and clean up future oil spills.

“Summit is being held criminally accountable for its crimes of negligently discharging more than 29 million gallons over more than four months and then knowingly failing to report the discharge,” said Assistant Attorney General Todd Kim of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

“Summit gave misleading and incomplete statements to the government about the duration and size of the spill. Through the civil and criminal cases, Summit is being held responsible for its misconduct and must implement more rigorous environmental management to prevent and detect future spills as a condition of probation.”

Acting Assistant Administrator Larry Starfield of the EPA’s Office of the Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, said, “Investigations revealed that the spill occurred over 143 days and released more than 29 million gallons of contaminated waters into the environment, including tributaries of the Missouri River. This case sends a clear message that EPA and our law enforcement partners will hold responsible companies that fail to take appropriate steps to detect and prevent spills.”

A detailed statement of facts has been filed in court and is publicly available here. According to the factual admission agreed to by the company, “Summit’s negligence included the design, construction and operation of the Marmon Water Gathering System pipeline, as well as the negligent failure to find and stop the spill after learning of objective signs of a leak.”

Summit started pipeline operations without meters at both ends of the pipeline to conduct line balancing or otherwise having a reliable leak detection system in place.

“Even after the company learned of major drops in pressure and volume – objective signs of a leak – the company negligently continued operations and thus caused millions of additional gallons to be discharged into U.S. waters without learning the cause or pausing operations,” according to the joint factual statement.

The criminal fine is in addition to a $20 million civil penalty imposed on Summit Midstream Partners LLC and a related company, Meadowlark Midstream Company LLC, to resolve civil violations of the Clean Water Act and North Dakota water pollution control laws.

On September 28, the civil consent decree was approved by the U.S. District Court for the District of North Dakota.

The criminal investigation was conducted by EPA’s Criminal Investigation Division. EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance, EPA Region 8, the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality, the North Dakota Industrial Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the U.S. Department of Interior and the North Dakota Department of Game and Fish provided assistance to the criminal investigation.

Featured image: Oil on Blacktail Creek immediately downstream of the Summit Midstream pipeline rupture. (Photo courtesy U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Continue Reading