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The Associated Press August 25, 2011, 6:11PM ET

Oil companies charged in ND migratory bird deaths

Seven oil companies have been charged in federal court with killing migratory birds that died after allegedly landing in oil waste pits in western North Dakota.

The charges involve 28 dead birds that were discovered in oil waste pits between May 6 and June 20. The maximum penalty for each charge under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act is six months in prison and a $15,000 fine.

Timothy Purdon, the U.S. Attorney for North Dakota, said in a statement Thursday that the allegations "should be troubling to those interested in preserving North Dakota's rich heritage of hunting and fishing and to the many oil companies to work hard to follow the laws protecting our wildlife." He declined to comment further on the matter.

Charged in the case are Slawson Exploration Co. Inc., of Wichita, Kansas; ConocoPhillips Co., of Houston; Newfield Production Co., of Houston; Brigham Oil and Gas LP, of Williston; Continental Resources Inc., of Enid, Okla.; Fidelity Exploration & Production Co., of Denver; and Petro Hunt LLC, of Dallas.

Tim Rasmussen, spokesman for Fidelity, said the company is aware of the allegations.

"We intend to fully cooperate with the agencies through this process," Rasmussen said. "Beyond that, there's not much we can say at this point until we get further information."

Representatives from the other companies either declined to comment or did not return messages from The Associated Press.

Court documents show that all seven companies have been previously cited for similar violations.

The so-called reserve pits are used during oil and gas drilling operations. Once a well is completed, companies are required to clean up the pit, and it must be covered with netting if it's open for more than 90 days. None of the pits referenced in the charges were netted, but it's unclear how many of them were open beyond three months, documents show.

The increasing number of dead birds has state officials debating whether to ban waste oil pits and require companies to recycle liquid drilling waste.

Authorities say a dozen dead birds were found in Slawson pits, including three mallards, two gadwalls, two blue-winged teal, one redhead, one common golden eye, one northern pintail and two birds of indeterminate species.

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