An ex-operator of a saltwater well in southwest North Dakota linked to an illegal wastewater dumping case pleaded not guilty to multiple felony charges Monday in federal court in Bismarck.
Jason Halek, of Southlake, Texas, entered not guilty pleas to all charges including violating the Safe Drinking Water Act, making false statements and obstructing grand jury proceedings.
A federal indictment charges Halek with conspiring with others in a number of illegal acts including injecting saltwater — an unwanted byproduct of oil production — into a disposal well near Dickinson without first having North Dakota inspectors witness a test of the well’s integrity and continuing to inject the fluid after a failed pressure test.
In September, Executive Drilling LLC President Nathan Garber pleaded guilty to multiple felony counts related to the same well, known as Halek 5-22, and agreed to cooperate with authorities in the investigation.
The 13-count indictment against Halek said between December 2011 and February 2012, the defendant and Garber conspired to hinder by “craft, trickery, deceit, and dishonest means the lawful and legitimate functions of the (Environmental Protection Agency), in enforcing federal laws relating to the requirements of the North Dakota underground injection control program.”
Halek’s defense attorney, Alexander Reichert, said his client denies any wrongdoing, but declined to comment further on the case because it’s “too early” in the process. Reichert noted nothing “ever spilled into the drinking water.”
The criminal charges against Halek relate to a state case against Halek Operating ND LLC, which ended up fined a record $1.5 million in 2013 for putting drinking water at risk by illegally dumping more than 800,000 gallons of salty, oilfield wastewater into a former oil well in Stark County and then attempting to cover it up.
Halek admitted illegal dumping in court records but said ownership transferred to Executive Drilling when the most egregious infractions occurred and therefore wasn’t at fault.
Saltwater is an environmental hazard and is many times saltier than sea water and can easily kill vegetation exposed to it. Companies commonly dispose of the oil production byproducts by injecting them into an approved underground facility.