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Oilfield company fined in 2014 death of worker

Nearly five years after a worker died in a fiery explosion, an oilfield company has been fined $2.1 million and put on probation.

The verdict in the U.S. District Court for North Dakota was announced in a news release Wednesday, Aug. 28. U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland sentenced C&J Well Services to pay $500,000 in fines, pay $1.6 million to the estate of 28-year-old Dustin Payne, and serve three years of probation. During the three years, the company will have to allow the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to inspect any of its facilities across the country.

In October 2014, Payne was welding on a tanker trailer at the Nabors Completion and Production Services facility in Williston. C&J is the corporate successor to NCPS.

The tanker had been used to haul produced water — an oilfield waste product — and hadn’t been cleaned. Federal law prohibits welding any container that carried flammable materials without first cleaning them.

The sparks caused the tanker to explode, and Payne sustained fatal injuries, dying about a week later.

The federal case was filed in June and a plea agreement appears to have been reached quickly, according to court records. The company pleaded guilty and was sentenced in Bismarck on Wednesday.

The company had a policy that required special training for welders, but did not provide welding-specific training to Payne or any of the welders who were working in Williston, according to a news release from the North Dakota U.S. Attorney’s Office.

Because there wasn’t proper oversight, Payne and others repeatedly welded on tanks that had carried flammable material but hadn’t been cleaned.

“The North Dakota oil industry attracts thousands of workers from across the country for the prospect of well-paying jobs, and many of those workers initially lack significant oilfield experience,” U.S. Attorney Drew H. Wrigley said in a news release. “Companies have an obligation to educate North Dakota workers and when they fail to meet those obligations, we will hold them accountable.”

Public's TENORM questions get asked, but most of North Dakota's answers will not come until later

A public hearing Tuesday night in Williston for radioactive and solid waste materials handling permits for Secure Energy Services, seeking to open the state’s first TENORM waste facility, was long on questions, but not as long on answers as participants wished.

There was first a short presentation explaining a little about the proceedings and the methods for submitting public comments. Then an open house commenced — even though several participants told state officials vehemently that they did not want to follow that format.

People would benefit from hearing the answers to all the questions being asked, Julie Keller suggested.

She, and several members of a group sitting with her, wanted state officials to take questions from the audience at large, and answer them with the microphone, for everyone in the room at once.

State officials, however, would not change the format, in which various officials from different programs in the Department of Environmental Quality’s Division of Water Management were placed at locations around the room, so people could ask their questions one at a time, individually.

That led Keller and others to pair off in small groups in which they took notes, with plans to share information later.

Keller’s group headed for the radiation program, which included Dave Stradinger and Dale Patrick.

Among the concerns raised first was the compliance record of Secure Energy. Keller had a printout of the company’s application materials, in which she said several violations were listed, including one where some radioactive materials were found.

There was an instance, Stradinger acknowledged, where some TENORM was identified through the state’s inspection program. He said the company responded appropriately to the issue.

The material was removed, and that removal was verified.

Just how much radiation was involved, another member of Keller’s group wanted to know.

“It was minimal,” Stradinger told them, though he declined to give an exact amount.

When the group expressed disbelief that Stradinger didn’t know this number, an unidentified member of the program staff suggested it was probably about 13 picocuries per gram.

The presence of TENORM at the 13-Mile facility before it was legally allowed also raised several questions, members of the group suggested. How would there be any certainty in the future that things will be handled the way they are supposed to be, especially strict adherence to the 50 picocuries per gram limit?

Stradinger said the company has since changed its screening procedures for incoming loads. It now screens all loads, and any that exceed twice background levels are immediately rejected.

As far as in the future, any companies sending loads to a TENORM facility must first certify that the level of radiation in the truckload is below the legal limit. That sampling would happen before the trucks are loaded and sent to the TENORM facility.

Any loads that do not include the proper certification materials that certify the load’s radioactive levels will be rejected outright.

There were also questions about the sampling methods used to determine if a truckload is over the limit. Individuals were concerned that one end of the load might not show it was hot, even though the other end is. Could companies hide the radioactivity and escape detection that way?

Stradinger said companies certifying the radioactivity of these loads would be required to use legitimate sampling methods on every load of TENORM waste material. That includes taking what’s called a composite sample, built by taking a portion from several random locations in the load, then mixing the result up before taking a final sample for testing.

There were also questions about runoff, and concerns about the Secure Energy facility’s proximity to several different bodies of water, including a waterline that sends water to Williston.

Stradinger said runoff issues would have been something looked at when the original facility was sited, and that the facility would have been designed not to allow any runoff.

Stradinger was also asked pointedly if he would want to live next door to the facility himself.

“I’d feel safe,” Stradinger said.

Pressed to move to Williston immediately, Stradinger said he would not move to Williston because his children need medical services that would not be available here, and because there are other members of his family who would be involved in making such a decision.

After the open house portion concluded, the participants had a chance to record comments for or against the facility for the record.

Many citizens, clearly against the permits being issued, put their objections and their questions into the record. The questions were not answered during the formal proceedings, though Chuck Hyatt, director of the Division of Waste Management, promised several times that all the questions would eventually be answered in writing.

The only person who put a comment on the record clearly in favor of the permit was Kurt Rhea, who is with the company that will manage Secure Energy’s radiation control program.

He talked about radiation in general, explaining that it is everywhere in the environment, from food to water and sunshine.

“Unless the batteries are low or the meter is broken, it never reads zero,” he said.

Things like bananas and brazil nuts have radiation, Rhea said.

“Smokers receive 125 chest x-rays just by smoking one pack a day,“ he said.

Distance is an important factor with the type of radiation at the facility, Rhea added.

The type of radiation that it is doesn’t travel far, and is blocked by skin. In order to be affected by it, an individual would need to ingest or inhale it.

“By the time you are about 15 yards away from the actual closed cell there is no incremental dose,” Rhea said. “You will have the same background as in your backyard.”

Another point, he said, is that the facility will only accept 25,000 tons per year, which is a small percentage of the overall material going into the landfill.

“Only 10 percent of the waste will be TENORM,” he said. There is a “magnificent dilution factor.”

“(All those reasons) are how I know for a fact that the levels are going to be incredibly low and someday, down the road, that landfill will be an incredible sliding hill,” Rhea said.

County Commissioner Beau Anderson was among the general public with a comment for the record.

Anderson said that while he doesn’t live near this particular site, he does live near a solid waste landfill that was recently permitted and is adjacent to his land.

“If this goes through,” Anderson said, “I will get to deal with this in a short amount of time.”

Anderson is a cattle rancher, and indicated his concern is for the land and for future generations.

“An article yesterday that talked about a gal from the state’s (department of environmental quality) said that they are looking for comments based on science and fact. So I’m here to ask the state is your science accurate, and is it based on facts?”

Anderson said while not many folks live next to him, the steaks he produces at his ranch could land anywhere, including the governor’s table or Lynn Helms’ plate.

“So I call on the state to have it right,” he said. “If this is not right, it’s going to affect generations.”

Williston Out of the Darkness Walk raises awareness for suicide prevention

Every day, more than 120 people lose their lives to suicide in the United States. Unfortunately, North Dakota’s suicide rate is higher than the national average, with 144 lives lost in 2018, and is the second leading cause of death for North Dakotans aged 15 to 34.

The numbers are alarming, but there is hope. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s annual Out of the Darkness Walks, taking place in communities all across the country, raise awareness and provide support for those who have been affected by suicide, as well as those who suffer with mental health issues. Yearly, more than 250,000 people walk in support of the cause in cities across the country. Locally, the North Dakota chapter of the AFSP is preparing for their annual event on Saturday, Sep. 14 beginning at Williston State College.

“Every day there is somebody who comes into crisis,” Walk Board Member Lynn Thomas told the Williston Herald. “They need to know that there are people in the community that understand what they’re going through. Both if they’re in crisis, or as a supporter of someone who has lost someone to suicide. Suicide prevention does not have an expiration date. (The walk) needs to happen every year in order to keep the message in the forefront of people’s minds that they are not alone.”

Thomas explained that the community walks are the primary fundraiser for the Foundation, with those funds going towards the organization’s national efforts to support advocacy in Washington D.C., as well as for bringing programs back into the communities they serve. Those programs, Thomas continued, go into schools, businesses, health care providers, law enforcement centers and more to provide the training and information they need to provide support to those in need.

“The bottom line is, we are here to support.” Thomas said. “We have all been touched by suicide in one way or another, so we understand in many different ways what people have happening in their lives that they come in to crisis so easily. They need to know that there are people who will listen. People who understand, and people who can support them as they find their way out of crisis, or if they have lost someone to suicide, that we will help them get through the grief, or find a way to exist with it.”

Online registration for the walk is open until noon on Sep. 13, however any individuals or teams who would like to participate can register in person beginning at 10 a.m. on Sept. 14. Registration is free and open to the public. The program itself begins at 10:45 a.m., with the walk beginning at 11 a.m. Participants raise donations for the Walk, and so far 18 teams have raised over $19,000 of the $25,000 goal.

The walk will take participants to Harmon Park, where there will be information booths and resources available to those who may be struggling themselves, or know someone who in need of help. Finding that help, Thomas said, is the key to suicide prevention and awareness.

“If someone is struggling and they find themselves in crisis, silence is the worst thing they can do,” Thomas said. “If you know someone who is struggling, silence is the worst thing you can do. They need to talk. They can talk to counselors here in town, they can talk to their clergy, they can talk to a teacher. there are many different avenues they can go through to get help.”

For more information, to register or to donate to the Williston Out of the Darkness Walk, visit www.afsp.org/williston. If you or someone you know is in need of support, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

State lab analyst testifies about drugs during trial

An analyst for the North Dakota State Crime Lab told a courtroom that she tests much of what was seized in December during a drug raid and that she detected heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and more.

Archie Mooney, 55, is charged with possession of methamphetamine with intent to deliver, possession of heroin with intent to deliver, both class A felonies, three class B felony counts of possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, two class C felony and four misdemeanor counts of possession of drug paraphernalia and six misdemeanor counts of possession of a controlled substance.

Charlene Rittenbach, a forensic scientist with North Dakota, testified Wednesday, Aug. 28, for about an hour, going through the items seized when police arrested Mooney and his live-in girlfriend, Michelle Moore, in December.

Rittenbach told jurors about the process for testing substances police believe might contain drugs, including how the equipment is set up, cleaned and tested.

“We will do a series of tests,” she explained. “The first would be just a screening test.”

Nathan Madden, assistant state’s attorney for Williams County, asked Rittenbach about several items. One bag contained about 100 grams of black tar heroin, and another container had nine bags of heroin, each with between 0.5 and 0.71 grams.

“All of the bags were individually tested and they all contained heroin,” she said of the nine bags.

Police said Mooney had about 177 grams of heroin, more than 70 grams of meth, more than 200 grams of marijuana and various other substances.

During cross examination, Kalli Hoffman, Mooney’s public defender, questioned the process for testing.

“Are there any other precautions you take?” she asked Rittenbach.

Rittenbach said analysts wear gloves and lab coats and that machines are calibrated and tested daily.

“There’s a lot of quality control measures that are in place,” she said.

The trial is scheduled to go to the jury Thursday.

N.D. ends budget cycle ahead of general fund projections

BISMARCK — The state of North Dakota ended the 2017-19 budget cycle 5.4% ahead of its general fund revenue forecast, the state’s top budget official told lawmakers Wednesday, Aug. 28.

The general fund exceeded the March legislative revenue forecast by nearly $250 million for the biennium that ended June 30, largely thanks to a larger-than-expected transfer of Legacy Fund earnings and more robust collections of sales and income taxes.

More than $455 million in Legacy Fund earnings were transferred to the state’s general fund in July. Voters created the oil tax piggy bank in 2010, and lawmakers plan to solicit ideas from the public on how to use earnings generated by the fund, which is valued at more than $6 billion.

Office of Management and Budget Director Joe Morrissette described the revenue forecast for 2017-19 as “conservative” but not unreasonable.

“If we’re going to miss the Legacy Fund earnings amount ... you want the miss to be that direction,” he said.

Meanwhile, the state nearly refilled its rainy day fund after lawmakers raided it to balance the books amid severe budget woes brought on by a downturn in oil and farm commodity prices.