Operator of Saltwater Disposal Well Pleads Guilty to Multiple Felony Charges in Connection with Operation of the Well
WASHINGTON – Nathan R. Garber, 45, of Kalispell, Montana, pleaded guilty in federal court in Bismarck to eleven felony charges stemming from the operation of a saltwater disposal well near Dickinson, in Stark County, North Dakota, the Justice Department announced.
Garber pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Safe Drinking Water Act and defraud the United States. He also pleaded guilty to five counts of violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, two counts of making false statements, two counts of falsification of records and one count of concealment or cover up of a tangible object.
The well, named the Halek 5-22, received “produced water” constituting “brine and other wastes” commonly and generically referred to as “saltwater.” “Saltwater” in this context covers a wide array of drilling waste fluids, including hydraulic fracturing fluid, which is water combined with chemical additives such as biocides, polymers and “weak acids.” The EPA has stressed that this water is often saltier than seawater and can “contain toxic metals and radioactive substances.”
“Every aspect of domestic energy extraction, including the disposal of wastewater, must accord with the nation’s environmental laws that protect air, water and soil from contamination,” said Sam Hirsch, the Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The American people expect nothing less than safe, responsible and legal behavior from those involved in oil and gas development in the Bakken and elsewhere. The Justice Department will vigorously prosecute those who violate this trust and the law.”
“The convictions secured today on 11 felony counts underscores the seriousness of the conduct here,” said U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon of the District of North Dakota. “Any time anyone in the Bakken oil boom region puts our water supplies at risk for contamination by intentionally breaking the laws in place to protect that water, the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Department of Justice and our partners at Environmental Protection Criminal Investigation Division will use every tool at our disposal to ensure that these offenders are brought to justice. I want to particularly commend the Environmental Protection Agents based in Helena, Montana who worked this case. Their commitment to this investigation, despite the fact that it being an eight hour one-way drive from their office, never wavered. Their commitment to make sure that this complex investigation was handled with the professionalism and skill it needed deserves special recognition and underscores the importance of ensuring that the Bakken region has access to these skilled Agents on a permanent basis.”
“As oil and natural gas development continues, it must be done in a way that ensures drilling byproducts are disposed of safely and legally,” said Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey Martinez of EPA’s criminal enforcement program in North Dakota. “The defendant’s disregard of environmental regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act put human health and the environment at serious risk. Today’s plea demonstrates that EPA and its law enforcement partners are committed to protecting North Dakota’s precious water sources and the communities that rely upon them.”
According to an agreed-upon factual statement filed in court, Garber admitted to conspiring with others in a number of coordinated and illegal acts. For instance, Garber injected saltwater into the well without first having the state of North Dakota witness a test of the well’s integrity, causing a regulator to determine that there was no assurance as to the integrity of the well and that “the fluid could be going anywhere.” Garber also violated a February 2012 order from the state to stop injecting until a well integrity test was done. When questioned by the state about these injections, Garber made false statements in a March 6, 2012 email where he denied that these injections occurred.
The well failed a pressure test on Feb. 2, 2012, and Garber continued to inject saltwater even though he knew that the well did not have integrity and thus posed an increased risk of contaminating ground water.
Further, Garber moved a device called a “packer” up the wellbore in violation of the well’s permit, without first getting approval from the state. A properly placed packer is an essential device to maintaining integrity of the well and ensuring wastewater does not escape into surrounding soil and groundwater.
Then, Garber gave false information to a state inspector regarding the depth of the packer.
A search warrant was executed at the well on Nov. 20, 2013, and it was confirmed that the packer had been moved up in the wellbore and was significantly higher than the depth that had been initially represented by Garber. Despite illegally moving the packer on Feb. 14, 2012, Garber continued to inject saltwater into the well until on or about March 5, 2012, when a state employee shut the well in.
The case was investigated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division. Significant cooperation was provided by the North Dakota Industrial Commission (NDIC). The case is being prosecuted by the United States Attorney’s Office for the District of North Dakota and the Environmental Crimes Section of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.