- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - An oil company should not have been criminally charged for an accidental oil spill in Montana that its employees took immediate steps to fix when it was discovered in 2011, attorneys for the company said in their request to dismiss the charges.

Federal prosecutors allege FX Drilling Co. and field supervisor Quay Geza Torok failed to clean up the spill after they discovered the leak at an oil field on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. The mixture of oil and production fluid spread nearly a mile over the next month to a waterway that flows into Cut Bank Creek, according to the indictment.

A grand jury indicted FX Drilling and Torok with negligent discharge of oil into waters of the United States and failure to immediately notify federal authorities. The company and Torok pleaded not guilty last month, and on Wednesday filed motions to dismiss the charges against them.

Failing to remove oil is a violation of the federal Clean Water Act that is subject to civil penalties, but it is not a criminal offense, attorneys for Torok and the subsidiary of Salt Lake City-based FX Energy Inc. said in the court documents. In filing criminal charges, the U.S. government is expanding the reach of the Clean Water Act, they said.

The new court documents are the company’s first opportunity to give its version of what happened after the leak was discovered in an underground flow line connecting two oil wells in June 2011. Torok immediately turned off two wells and he and two other workers fixed the cracked line the next day, attorneys for FX Drilling and Torok wrote.

The oil and production fluid that had already leaked appeared to stop in the tall grass down a grassy slope, the attorneys said in the filing. The amount of the leak is disputed by the two sides: The U.S. government estimates up to 840 gallons spilled, while FX Drilling says it was only up to 630 gallons.

The next month, oil was found in a drainage that leads to Cut Bank Creek. The company had 24 hours to contact federal officials once the spill reached the water, but failed to do so, federal prosecutors allege.

Torok attorney Kevin Evans previously disputed whether the spill actually reached the waterway, but said in a separate motion to dismiss that the failure to notify charge against his client should be dismissed because he had reported the spill to the company.

FX Drilling installed booms and absorbent pads, built an earthen dam and took other steps to prevent the further spread of oil. In all, the company spent $330,000 and the cleanup was concluded that September to everyone’s satisfaction, the company said in the court documents.

Bringing criminal charges for the accident is unjust and unconstitutional, the company said. FX Drilling’s attorneys used the example of the Environmental Protection Agency’s accidental spill of over 3 million gallons of toxic material into Colorado’s Animas River, saying no criminal charges were filed there.

That illustrates “the disparity in treatment between the standard to which the EPA holds itself and to which it seeks to hold private entities and individuals,” the court filing said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Melissa Hornbein did not have an immediate comment on the company’s recent court filings.

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