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Oil well fire out after burning for 16 days in McKenzie County

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Fire Dakota Prairie Grasslands

A fire broke out July 22 at an oil well site in McKenzie County.

A fire involving three oil wells in McKenzie County was extinguished over the weekend after it had burned for 16 days.

Cleanup work has begun at the site northeast of Watford City near Lake Sakakawea, and state officials can now access the well pad to investigate. Crews put out the fire at the first well last Tuesday and at the final well on Saturday, said Beth Babb, a spokesperson for Petro-Hunt, the company operating the well pad.

An inspector from the North Dakota Department of Environmental Quality was headed to the site Monday to talk with personnel there and do a visual inspection.

An early estimate Petro-Hunt provided the state indicated that 100 barrels of oil and 100 barrels of produced water spilled in the incident. Produced water is also known as brine or saltwater, and it comes up alongside oil and gas in wells. One hundred barrels is equal to 4,200 gallons.

State officials believe that any fluids that spilled either burned up or were contained, but that’s something they will verify when they visit the site.

“We’ll look for visual signs that anything migrated off the well pad,” said Bill Suess, spill investigation program manager for Environmental Quality.

The department uses tools to measure the electrical conductivity of soil, which is a way to tell if fluids spilled there, particularly produced water.

State officials have told the Tribune in recent weeks that they had to wait for the fire to be extinguished before they could do the bulk of their investigation.

Gas was coming out of the wells at a high pressure during the fire and people could not get close to it, Suess said.

“It’s very difficult to get it put out because there’s so much heat coming from it,” he said.

Petro-Hunt hired specialists from Wild Well Control to help extinguish the fire. Crews used water from Lake Sakakawea to cool down the site to gain access, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The wells are on federal land within the Forest Service’s McKenzie Ranger District.

The cause of the fire is under investigation, but the blaze began at one of the wells and then spread to the other two, all of which are on the same well pad. State Mineral Resources Director Lynn Helms last month said the initial fire appears to be due to a failed blowout preventer, which is a device used to guard against an uncontrolled flow of oil and gas.

Suess, who has worked for Environmental Quality since 2008, said he could not remember another oil well fire in North Dakota that burned for as long as this one.

The fire sent black smoke into the air for days and prompted an alert from state environmental officials that people in the area should monitor the air quality and potentially reduce their time outside.

Multiple state and federal agencies have been involved in investigating the fire, and that work could lead to a penalty down the road.

Reach Amy R. Sisk at 701-250-8252 or amy.sisk@bismarcktribune.com.

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