Williston Herald Opinion – Regulators need to stand up to oil

Regulators need to stand up to oil

Williston Herald Editorial Board | Posted: Saturday, November 29, 2014 5:00 pm

A report by The New York Times, released a week ago today, gave us a damaging and eyebrow-raising look at how the state regulates the oil industry in western North Dakota.

Indeed, the report pointed out the 900-pound gorilla in North Dakota Industrial Commission meetings, and exposed what reads like a “good ole’ boys” relationship between the regulating body and the industry.

Millions of dollars in fines have been issued to these companies, and most reduced to a slap on the wrist—about 10 percent of all fines collected—during a time when spills were doubling in the Bakken.

For us in the heart of the Bakken, this was happening literally in some of our backyards, and was apparently fixed with an apology, a false promise, and a few cents in the campaign donation bucket.

Days after The Times ripped the cover off the state’s broken regulatory system—and drew harsh rebuke from Gov. Jack Dalrymple—North Dakota signed off on a fine reduction for a company that illegally dumped radioactive filter socks in Noonan—nearly $780,000 less than the original assessment—and all the while maintaining its regulation was among the strongest.

We beg to differ.

We also feel the need to question: Why are our elected officials not holding these oil companies responsible for their mistakes, neglect and poor judgement?

In the case of Zenith Producted Water, the company which allegedly dumped the socks, a district attorney appointed by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said there wouldn’t be enough evidence to fully prosecute the company for the $800,000 fine. Instead, Zenith was fined $20,000 for cost of cleanup and told to behave.

A lesson hard learned, we’re sure.

Zenith claimed innocence, saying a contractor hired by the company did the deed, unbeknownst to them. While we believe this could be the case, we also believe Zenith should be held responsible for its poor decision in hiring what turned out to be an untrustworthy contractor to dispose of toxic waste.

If a state contractor was acting illegally, the state would catch the heat, and ultimately end up shouldering a brunt of the burden. It would happen in almost every other walk of business.

Zenith hired a party to do its job, and didn’t have the care to create oversight for its vendor.

As for the fine, we feel the attorney general and district attorney should have stood up for North Dakota, prosecuted the entire case and allowed a judge or jury to decide if Zenith was at fault, and what it should pay.

In the wake of The Times’ report, the state cannot afford—financially or through reputation—to continue to appear as if it’s in the back pocket of the oil industry. It simply has to come down hard at some point and stop resting its head on past laurels when challenged.

Officials on the NDIC, who regulate the industry, were elected by the people, not the oil industry. It’s time they stand up to the oil industry, demand it takes responsibility and stop taking campaign funds from the people they must discipline.

Otherwise, it may be time for the Legislature to shake things up as it tried to do with the State Board of Higher Education: Remove elected officials from the NDIC and appoint a new round of regulators without industry ties.

Because if we can’t trust our state government to protect our lands and their fellow North Dakotans, who else are we to trust to make the industry responsible for its actions?

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