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State OKs Flint Hills’ plan to clean up North Pole refinery on-site contaminants

KUAC file photo

State officials have approved a plan proposed by Flint Hills Resources-Alaska to continue an ongoing cleanup of sulfolane and other contaminants that have leaked from its North Pole refinery since the 1970s.The agreement may help improve the chances of Flint Hills eventually selling the refinery, which it closed in May.

Officials with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and the Department of Law announced Monday that they’d approved Flint Hills’ cleanup plan for the refinery property only. The plan does not include any cleanup outside of the refinery property line.

Kristin Ryan is the head of DEC’s Spill Prevention and Response Division, and she says the agreement essentially states that Flint Hills should continue to do what it’s been doing for about three years now.

“It’s basically our agreement that the activities that what they are doing on-site is the right thing to do,” Ryan said.

Flint Hills has been testing methods to cleanup sulfolane soon after the company announced in 2009 that it had discovered the sulfolane in groundwater outside of the refinery property. Sulfolane is an industrial solvent used in oil refining. It leaked from the refinery for years before Flint Hills bought it in 2004.

The company also began providing drinking water to North Pole-area residents. And it took the refinery’s previous owner and the state to court to make the case that they share liability for the contamination.

Ryan says in addition to sulfolane, Flint Hills will continue cleaning up other on-site contaminants such as benzene that have leaked from the refinery since at least the late 1970s.

“It’s not just sulfolane,” she said. “In fact, a lot of the on-site recovery systems are in place to capture the benzene and the other gasoline-related spills that have happened over the years. Which is unfortunately pretty common for a refinery back in the days when they perhaps weren’t quite as careful.”

Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook says the state’s adoption of the plan is an important step toward continuing the cleanup – and, company officials hope, eventual sale of the facility.

“It is a critical step in detailing what’s expected of us, and allowing us to reposition ourselves for sale to a third party. And to continue our operation,” Cook said.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins says he’s encouraged that Flint Hills and the state have agreed to an on-site cleanup plan.

“It’s a step,” he said.

A step toward helping Flint Hills sell the refinery and getting it back up and running – and restoring some of the 90 jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenues that the borough and North Pole have lost due to the closure.

Hopkins says he looking forward to the state moving ahead on a cleanup plan for the whole area affected by the contamination. The plume of sulfolane in the groundwater has now grown to about 3 miles long, 2-and-a-half miles wide and 300 feet deep – one of the largest contamination plumes in the state.

“Any of the other actions for the large plume that out in North Pole and the borough area – many residents have that plume under their property – so we’ll have to wait and see some of the outcomes are that are offered for that,” he said.

The big cleanup have to wait until after DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig issues his decision expected by the end of the year on whether to set a stringent sulfolane-cleanup level, as recommended by DEC staff, or a lesser cleanup level, favored by Flint Hills.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.