By Mike Nowatzki
BISMARCK — Oilfield waste treatment facilities like the one approved in Dunn County by the North Dakota Industrial Commission on Monday could face greater scrutiny in the future as county officials consider revising their zoning ordinance to address such projects.
“We want to make sure that when one of these applications comes in that it’s not put next to a rural residence or something that would not go hand-in-hand with the landscape,” County Commissioner Donna Scott said.
The county didn’t object to Trisun Energy Services’ proposed Buffalo Hills treating facility, which will be co-located with a saltwater disposal well near Highway 22 north of Killdeer.
However, county officials indicated that had the facility been a standalone waste treatment facility, it would have had to go through the county’s planning and zoning process, said Lynn Helms, director of the state Department of Mineral Resources.
The land is currently zoned as “rural preservation,” which wouldn’t allow for an industrial site. Helms said the alternative would be to rezone it to rural development, but the minimum for that designation is 120 acres, and the Buffalo Hills site is only five acres, he said.
“So basically it’s a no,” he said.
Based on the recommendation of the department’s legal counsel, as well as a 2010 opinion by Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem and changes made by state lawmakers last year, Helms said a treating plant located at a saltwater disposal site doesn’t require county zoning approval and is subject only to Industrial Commission authority.
Even if Dunn County had authority, “They do not have a zoning ordinance that fits this,” Helms said.
The county is looking at creating an exemption in its ordinance to allow for an oilfield waste treatment facility in a rural preservation area, but it would be limited to two acres, Helms said.
“What it pretty much comes down to is it appears the goal is to say ‘no’ to these things through their zoning ordinances,” he said.
“In the whole county?” asked Stenehjem, who sits on the Industrial Commission with Gov. Jack Dalrymple and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring.
“Yes, sir,” Helms said.
“Well, then what?” Stenehjem said.
“Well, then the process has to move to a different county,” Helms said.
But Scott, who sits on the county’s planning and zoning board, said the county isn’t looking to ban oilfield waste facilities, and she said the two-acre figure hasn’t been approved.
She said county officials realize the state has authority to approve such facilities, but added that the county has a say on matters such as truck parking or whether a mobile home is allowed on site.
“He’s aware of that, that we’re not trying to ban anything,” she said of Helms. “We just want to make sure that it fits into our zoning plan.”
A public hearing would be held on any proposed changes to the zoning ordinance, and one hasn’t been scheduled yet, Scott said.
Buffalo Hills will process up to 4,000 barrels of drilling muds and other oilfield waste per day, using the reclaimed material to help recover more crude oil, according to the company’s application.
In other business, Helms updated the Industrial Commission on implementation of the drilling permit review policy approved March 3. The policy created a formal 10-day public comment period for drilling applications on public lands within “areas of interest” extending up to two miles around 18 so-called “extraordinary places” in western North Dakota.
Helms said a software program is being developed that will flag any application that falls within an area of interest starting May 1, when the policy takes effect. The areas of interest will encompass about 600,000 acres, and maps of them will be posted to the Industrial Commission’s website.