A Montana executive pleaded guilty to dumping toxic drilling liquid and endangering the drinking water of a county in southwest North Dakota.
Executive Drilling LLC President Nathan Garber, 45, of Kalispell, Montana, appeared in federal court in Bismarck on Friday and pleaded guilty to 11 felony charges, include violations of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act, conspiracy and falsifying documents and statements.
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Garber faced nearly 75 years in prison on the charges but reached a plea deal with prosecutors that calls for 30 to 37 months of incarceration. As part of the plea deal, Garber agreed to cooperate with federal authorities in an investigation of the incident. A sentencing date was not set.
"This qualifies as the worst of the worst of environmental crimes in North Dakota," U.S. Attorney Timothy Purdon told The Associated Press.
The criminal charges against Garber are connected to a state case against Halek Operating ND LLC, which was fined a record $1.5 million 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 up the crime.
Garber ordered the illegal dumping and told workers to tamper with the disposal well southwest of Dickinson so it would pass a state inspection, court documents say.
Halek admitted illegal dumping in court records but said that ownership had been transferred to Executive Drilling when the most egregious infractions occurred and therefore he wasn't at fault.
Garber earlier was charged in state court and fined $2,500 and given a two-year suspended jail term. North Dakota regulators said at the time that the penalties sent a strong message about the state's stance on protecting the environment and Garber was the first person prosecuted for allegedly breaking them.
State officials said the $1.5 million fine against Halek Operating was the largest regulatory penalty ever for violating the state's waste disposal rules, though less than 10 percent has been collected to date.
Garber told U.S. District Judge Daniel Hovland that he was raised Amish and started a business in North Dakota after being swindled out of money in an oil deal in Texas.