NEW TOWN — The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has issued a $2.1 million fine for air pollution at oil and gas wells primarily on the state’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation.
But the settlement against Slawson Exploration Co. announced Thursday stems from just one of many enforcement actions underway against state operators for air quality violations.
Slawson agreed to pay the fine under a settlement agreement after the EPA claimed the company violated the Clean Air Act by not properly controlling emissions at 170 well pads in the state.
The violations primarily stem from storage tanks that were releasing volatile organic compounds into the atmosphere, first observed by EPA inspectors in 2014. The EPA said VOCs are a pollutant that irritates the lungs, exacerbates diseases such as asthma and can increase susceptibility to respiratory illnesses.
The company also agreed to spend about $4.1 million on system upgrades, monitoring and inspections and at least $2 million to fund environmental mitigation projects under the settlement with the EPA and the Department of Justice.
The improvements ordered in the settlement, including monitoring of emissions using infrared cameras, will significantly reduce air pollution in the state, the EPA said.
“This Clean Air Act agreement will bring better air quality and lasting health benefits to communities in North Dakota, including the people of the Three Affiliated Tribes,” Assistant Attorney General John C. Cruden for the Justice Department said in a statement.
The EPA took the lead on the investigation because most of the Slawson well pads are on the Fort Berthold Reservation.
Statewide, the North Dakota Department of Health has also increased its monitoring of emissions at oil and gas wells and has enforcement actions pending against 15 to 25 companies, said Terry O’Clair, director of the Division of Air Quality.
The proposed fines have not been finalized, but the enforcement actions are expected to be significant, O’Clair said.
“Those numbers are going to be large,” he said of the fines.
The health department now uses a $100,000 camera it purchased with help from an EPA grant to detect emissions that leak from well sites but are invisible to the naked eye. The FLIR camera, which stands for forward-looking infrared radiometer, has allowed regulators and companies to discover emissions problems they didn’t realize existed, O’Clair said.
“We’ve come a long way in not only finding what was causing it but also what you can do to fix it so it doesn’t continue to happen,” he said.
The North Dakota Petroleum Council has an industry task force focused on reducing emissions and hosted a program this fall to train companies on using FLIR cameras.
Slawson has been using one of the cameras for about a year, said Eric Sundberg, environmental and regulatory manager.
“We take public health and environmental protection very seriously, which is why our company has been proactive in the evaluation of our oil and gas facilities and implemented a robust inspection and maintenance program well ahead of this announcement,” company president Todd Slawson said in a statement.
The agreement means the company is not admitting liability but has agreed to compromise with the EPA to settle the matter. The mitigation projects include installing automatic tank gauging on some tank storage systems and retrofitting drilling rigs so they reduce diesel emissions.
Slawson will soon begin implementing those projects, a process Sundberg estimated to take up to two years.