We return now to an old, familiar story, a story of some really bad guys doing some really bad things to the North Dakota environment (or enviornment, as the Bismarck Tribune spells it in really big headlines on the front page today — have you ever seen a worse newspaper?), getting caught by state “regulators,” then given a slap on the hands and told not to do it again. It’s happened so many times we don’t even pay attention any more. But this time, the story is going to have a different ending, thanks to a guy who really cares about his state.
This is the seventh article in a series I started here more than two years ago, when the North Dakota Industrial Commission announced it was fining a company named Halek Operating $1.5 million — “The Largest Fine Ever Handed Out By The State Of North Dakota” Jack Dalrymple bragged in giant headlines all across the state. The fine was the result of a civil suit, not a criminal suit, filed by the State of North Dakota against Halek for dumping 800,000 gallons of saltwater down an abandoned oil well south of Dickinson. You can read all the details of this story by going to this old blog post of mine.
Well, surprise, surprise, the $1.5 million was never collected because the company was bankrupt and its owner, Jason Halek, didn’t have any money. All the state got was a $40,000 bond. The Industrial Commission still has $1,460,000 coming, which it will never collect. But boy, those headlines looked good at the time, and a lot of buttons were popping off the shirts of Dalrymple and his fellow Industrial Commission members, Wayne Stenehjem and Douglas Goehring.
Halek was never charged with a crime in state court because he claimed he had sold the well to a fellow named Nathan Garber, who actually did the dumping. Garber WAS charged, and received a suspended sentence and a $2,500 fine. About three tenths of a penny per gallon. Whoopee.
But watching this sham by the state was our United States Attorney at the time, Tim Purdon. I didn’t see him do it, but I can imagine him sitting at his desk shaking his head in disappointment. Purdon, like most North Dakotans, actually cares about the environment. He did something about it. He called in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s crack investigative team and put them to work. What they found, and what they did about it, is truly amazing.
The EPA investigative team found numerous instances where laws had been broken. They took their findings to Purdon, and about a year ago, he filed 11 felony charges against Garber. Garber and his lawyer took one look at the EPA report and promptly pleaded guilty. Now, a year later, a presentence investigation has been completed and Garber, who remains free on bond, will likely be sentenced pretty soon to a few years in a federal prison.
How long, I suspect, depends on how much he is willing to say in court at the trial of Jason Halek. Because a few weeks ago, a federal grand jury — once again convened by Purdon, acting on behalf of the U.S. government, because North Dakota wouldn’t prosecute — returned a 28-page indictment against Halek. The indictment contains 13 felony charges, including one charge for conspiring with Garber to dump the water. But the other 12 are more interesting.
As might be expected, there are four counts of violating the United States government’s Safe Drinking Water Act. The dumping of 800,000 gallons of toxic saltwater put Dickinson’s drinking water at risk. That’s what brought the EPA team to North Dakota.
There are also four counts of obstructing grand jury proceedings — essentially lying to the grand jury or hiding evidence from them.
But the last four are the most damning of all: providing false statements to the North Dakota Industrial Commission.
That’s right, the EPA and Purdon did what the North Dakota Industrial Commission and our own attorney general would not do: they pored through Industrial Commission (read: North Dakota Oil and Gas Division, headed up by Lynn Helms) documents and interviewed staff and found out what Helms, Dalrymple, Stenehjem and Goehring didn’t want us to know: that Jason Halek had indeed committed crimes against the state of North Dakota (well, OK, he hasn’t been convicted yet, but he likely will be) for which he will stand trial. In a federal courtroom. Not a North Dakota courtroom.
It took a federal investigation to charge Halek with crimes against the state of North Dakota because the State of North Dakota wouldn’t act on its own behalf. That is a sad, sad commentary on our state’s leadership, especially its attorney general, Wayne Stenehjem, who was quoted in newspapers two years ago as saying, “the case will be pursued vigorously in court.”
“It should never be cheaper to cut corners than to abide by the rules,” Stenehjem said, adding that “word gets around in the oil patch” and companies are now on notice that they will be punished for violating state oil and gas drilling laws.
Right. That from the man who’s probably going to announce in the next few weeks that he wants to be our next governor. Let’s be real careful about giving him THAT job.
Jason Halek was scheduled to stand trial in U.S. District Court in Bismarck in just a few weeks, on Oct. 27, but his trial has been postponed until at least the middle of next year. The Assistant U.S. Attorney who will be prosecuting the case, Christopher Constantini, made a motion, accepted by the court, on Sept. 15 to postpone the trial because “The United States anticipates the case will involve dozens of witnesses and hundreds of exhibits, including the presentation of specialized and technical/regulatory evidence,” according to court documents on file here. In addition, the documents say, “Several witnesses are from outside North Dakota, including Texas, Colorado, California and Montana. It is anticipated that over 200 exhibits will be offered by the United States, though that number may increase … the discovery in this matter is voluminous. The United States’ investigative database has over 12,000 documents.”
These boys don’t mess around. Their job is to protect the environment of the United States (including North Dakota), and when someone does something as bad and as blatant as it appears Halek has done here, they leave no stone unturned. Good for them. Because our state government is not going to do it.
As I mentioned earlier, Garber cut a deal and pleaded guilty. Probably the reason he hasn’t been sentenced yet is because the judge is waiting to see if he will testify against Halek. He remains free on bond. As does Halek, as of now, and no one knows if Halek will do the same. His charges are pretty serious, and he’s a pretty slick character.
Right now he’s listed in a Dallas newspaper story as a used-car salesman (uffda, he’s giving used car salesmen a bad name), and he has a weird little website on which he calls himself “a philanthropist,” with a primary life goal “to make an extreme and positive impact and difference in the world.”
“I am in relentless and constant pursuit of absolute truth,” he says on the website. “It is my deepest desire to play a major part in enlightening the world and helping others by exposing the deception often perpetrated by government, organized religion, and the world at large.”