North Dakota regulators offered Monday to settle state allegations that the Texas-based developer of the Dakota Access oil pipeline improperly reported the discovery of American Indian artifacts during construction.
The state Public Service Commission last November proposed a fine of at least $15,000 against Energy Transfer Partners, though the commission has the authority under state law to levy fines of up to $200,000.
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The three-member commission unanimously agreed to offer a settlement under which ETP would make a $15,000 "contribution" to the State Historic Preservation Office or another mutually agreed-upon entity. The company would not have to admit fault, and the matter would be dismissed upon payment of the money.
ETP didn't immediately comment on the proposal. The company has 10 days to accept the offer. If it rejects it, the PSC will move forward with the complaint. The next step would be a public hearing.
The complaint arose when the PSC was notified by a third-party inspector that pipeline crews last October had diverted construction of the pipeline around Native American artifacts. The company had obtained the approval of the State Historic Preservation Office but not of the commission, which oversees pipelines. The artifacts weren't disturbed.
ETP has maintained it did nothing intentionally wrong and has been fighting the proposed fine, which pales in comparison to the $3.8 billion cost of the pipeline that last month began moving oil from North Dakota to a distribution point in Illinois.
Commissioners said they decided to make the offer to try to put an end to the dispute. The group in recent weeks has been meeting with its attorneys in meetings closed to the public, but Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said the attorneys did not indicate to regulators that the state would have a tough time proving its case.
"It wasn't a matter of whether the case is strong or weak," she said. "It was really an effort to recognize that it's taking a long time to get to, actually, the heart of the matter, and we're not interested in being tangled up in procedural delays indefinitely, and that seemed to be what was happening from the company's standpoint."
The commission also is looking into whether ETP removed too many trees and improperly handled some removed soil while laying pipe in the state. A public hearing is scheduled Thursday, after which the PSC is to determine whether to proceed with a formal complaint and a possible fine, as it did in the artifacts case.
ETP on Monday asked the PSC to delay the hearing to give company and state attorneys more time to discuss a resolution. The PSC did not immediately decide.
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