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Energy & Environment

North Pole Seeks Bids on Water-system Expansion; Testing Continues on Contaminant


The City of North Pole today will begin soliciting contractors interested in working on a big project to expand the municipal water system. The project will more than double the number of customers now served by the city, in an effort to provide drinking water to areas where the groundwater has been contaminated by a chemical compound that for years leaked from the now-closed North Pole Refinery.

North Pole Public Works Director Bill Butler says construction companies interested in the water-system expansion project will have until November 28th to submit their proposals.

“After that time, the different parties – Flint Hills, the State of Alaska and the City of North Pole – will review those proposals,” Butler said Friday, “and hopefully by mid-December, we will have come to an agreement.”

Flint Hills Resources Alaska is involved because the company bought the refinery in 2004 and discovered five years later that the industrial solvent sulfolane that had leaked into the area’s groundwater had spread beyond the refinery property. In March, Flint Hills entered into an agreement with the state and North Pole to pay 80 percent of the cost of expanding the water system to areas where the “plume” of contamination had or would soon spread. Butler expects the project to take two years.

“So, phase 1 and 2 will be in the area of 12-mile Village and the City of North Pole property north of the Richardson Highway,” he said. “And the second phase, estimated for 2019, would be areas of the road up along Peridot (Road) up beyond Badger (Road) and a buffer zone beyond the plume.”

Credit Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
North Pole officials expect the expanded water system will double the number of customers, from 600 to 1,200, and will extend beyond city limits in some area.

Butler says city officials have been stockpiling gravel, pipe and other materials to be ready for work to begin around March in some swampy areas while they’re still frozen.  

“In the area just on the northern boundary of the city, the water main will be going through wetlands,” he said, “It’s very difficult to do construction in wetlands in the summer. There are special construction practices that would add to the cost of the project.”

The city estimates the project could cost up to $100 million.

Meanwhile, a federal agency tasked with conducting tests to determine the human-health impacts of sulfolane exposure has completed three of four testing programs using rats, mice and guinea pigs. Jim Fish is an environmental program specialist with the state Department of Environmental Conservation, and he says scientists with the National Toxicology Program haven’t yet released reports on those tests.

“There’s really no reports available at this time,” he said, “and my understanding is those reports are under review.”

Credit Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation
Flint Hills Resources Alaska shut down its North Pole Refinery in February 2014 largely due to mounting costs stemming from groundwater contamination caused by years of sulfolane leaks that began before Flint Hills bought the refinery in 2004 from Oklahoma-based The Williams Cos. Flint Hills now operates a scaled-down fuel terminal on the site.

Fish says not much is known about the health effects of long-term exposure to sulfolane. He says two of the first three tests were conducted over shorter time frames – one for 28 days, the other over three months. The third test is intended to help researchers understand more about how a chemical moves around in the body. Fish says those tests all should help fill gaps in what’s known about sulfolane’s health impacts.

“There are some things known about sulfolane,” he said, “but what was missing was the long-term toxicity information.”

That’s the subject of the fourth testing program. The chronic toxicity study is still under way. And it’s the key study, because that timeframe is consistent with how people in North Pole would most likely to have come into contact with sulfolane.

“People could be exposed to sulfolane throughout the duration of their life,” he said. “So having that long-term exposure or that chronic exposure information is critical for us.”

Fish says that information is especially important in helping regulators set up a cleanup level that Flint Hills would be required to meet to remediate sulfolane contamination. But he says reports on that study won’t be available under mid-2019, at the earliest.