- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - An oil and gas company faces criminal charges for a 2011 oil spill that prosecutors said went unreported for a month, in which time the spill spread nearly a mile downhill and polluted a stream in northwestern Montana.

A federal grand jury indictment unsealed Tuesday charged FX Drilling Co. and field supervisor Quay Geza Torok with negligent discharge of oil into waters of the United States and failure to immediately notify federal authorities of the spill.

Torok and an attorney for the company entered not guilty pleas in U.S. District Court in Great Falls on Tuesday. They dispute the Environmental Protection Agency’s assertion that the spilled oil ever made it to water.

“The EPA is trying to make it something that it’s not and we’re standing up to them,” said Cathy Laughner, the attorney for FX Drilling.

Torok discovered a 3-inch line connecting two oil wells had broken on an oil field on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation on June 12, 2011, according to the indictment. The line was fixed, but the company did not take steps to clean up the oil and production fluid that had already leaked, prosecutors said.

The spill, up to 840 gallons, spread down a drainage and into a tributary that flows into Cut Bank Creek, which empties into the Marias River. A boater reported the spill to Blackfeet tribal officials.

It was unclear how much oil made it to the stream, but the company had 24 hours to notify federal authorities once it did, EPA officials said at the time. Even after it was made aware of the spill, the company did not contact federal officials, leaving Blackfeet officials to do so, according to the indictment.

It took six weeks to clean the three-quarter mile path of the spill from the oil field. FX Energy, the Salt Lake City-based parent company of FX Drilling, spent $321,000 on the cleanup, according to filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Attorneys for FX Drilling and Torok said Wednesday there is no evidence the spill actually reached the stream. Torok attorney Kevin Evans said he doubted the boater’s initial report of a spill on the river, and added that natural seepage of oil frequently occurs in the area.

Evans questioned the decision to bring criminal charges under the federal Clean Water Act for failing to clean up and remove oil from the leak once the ruptured line was fixed.

“That might be a civil action, but it’s not a crime,” Evans said.

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