Ex-owner of North Pole Refinery to Appeal Groundwater-contamination Lawsuit Decision

Jan 15, 2020

A former owner of the North Pole Refinery will appeal a state Superior Court judge’s decision that the company is responsible for most of the liability resulting from groundwater contamination caused by the facility.


After more than five years of litigation, two former owners of the North Pole Refinery may go to court again to ask a judge to decide how much the companies must pay for contaminating the city’s groundwater with the industrial solvent sulfolane. That’s because officials with Oklahoma-based Williams Cos. have decided to appeal a judge’s recent decision that that company is mostly liable for the contamination.

The North Pole Refinery began production in 1977. In 1985, MAPCO, the owner of the facility, began using sulfolane as part of the refining process. Williams Cos. assumed ownership of the refinery in 1998, after merging with MAPCO. In 2004, Williams sold it to Flint Hills, which closed the facility in 2014, largely due to the sulfolane groundwater contamination problem.
Credit Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

“Williams plans to appeal the court’s ruling and is confident these issues will be ultimately resolved in its favor,” Williams spokesperson Sara Delgado said.

Delgado said in a phone interview Monday that company officials believe Judge Pro-tem Warren Matthews among other things didn’t adequately take into consideration her company’s efforts to respond to the discovery of sulfolane. She said the judge also didn’t sufficiently take into account the company’s efforts to inform the State of Alaska, the plaintiff in the case, about the contamination.

“Williams was a good corporate partner to the City of North Pole and its citizens, and believes it will ultimately be absolved of any liability related to this matter,” Delgado said.

Assistant Attorney General Maria Bahr said in an email Monday that she has consulted with other assistant attorneys general involved in the case about the appeal. “If or when we get notice of appeal, the Department of Law will carefully review the pleadings and respond accordingly,” she said in the email.

If the appeal is granted, the state Court of Appeals would review the decision.

Williams owned the refinery from 1998 to 2004, when it sold the facility to Flint Hills Resources Alaska. In 2009, Flint Hills announced it had discovered that sulfolane contamination had spread beyond the refinery property into groundwater downgradient from the facility. The so-called “plume” of sulfolane groundwater contamination now measures 2 miles wide, 3½ miles long and 300 feet deep.

In 2014, the State of Alaska sued both Flint Hills and Williams for the contamination. In 2017, Flint Hills settled with the state in an agreement that required the company to pay 90 percent of the cost of expanding the city’s water system into areas where landowners could no longer use their wells.

Last October, the state sued Williams for failing to respond adequately to the groundwater contamination and to ask the court to order the company to compensate Flint Hills for the cost of its response. On Jan. 3, Judge Matthews issued a 184-page decision in the case that ordered Williams to pay nearly $30 million for costs and damages and future response costs, and to partially reimburse Flint Hills for its expenditures.

Matthews also found Williams responsible for 75 percent of the spill liability, and Flint Hills liable for 25 percent.