North Pole Residents Get Update on Tainted Groundwater, Stricter Cleanup Standard

Feb 21, 2013

Updated: State health and environmental officials gave North Pole residents a progress report Wednesday night on their ongoing efforts to monitor the spread in area groundwater of an industrial solvent that leaked from the oil refinery in town about 25 years ago. They talked about how far the sulfolane has spread, and why they’ve set a stricter standard for cleaning it up.

Flint Hills Resources' North Pole refinery
Credit Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation

Among the dozens of people who filed through the array of displays at Wednesday night’s open house meeting at the North Pole Plaza Mall was Valerie Matthew, who lives around 12-Mile Village, just north of town. She says she mainly wanted to check out the state’s efforts to monitor the extent of the so-called “plume” of sulfolane contamination in the area’s groundwater, because …    
“The groundwater is poisoned, and it might be for a long time,” Matthew said.

Renee Klatt, a former Fairbanks resident who’s lived in North Pole for 20 years, says she’s attended all the meetings that’ve been held since 2009, when sulfolane was first detected in groundwater away from the Flint Hills Resources refinery. Flint Hills officials say the problem occurred years before the company bought the refinery in 2004.
Klatt says she tries to keep herself and her neighbors educated about the problem, which she believes has caused health problems for her and her family, and may have contributed to the cancer that claimed the life of one of her children.
“I’ve talked to a lot of people in my neighborhood, and they still don’t even know this is going on,” Klatt said. “If you’re not watching the news or paying attention, it’s just something that just slides by you. But there’s a lot of people out there who are going to be affected who just don’t have a clue.”
Terry Smith, a 40-year North Pole resident, says he too believes information about the problem was late in coming and is still hard to come by.
“Actually I’m really pissed off, because we could’ve been notified a long time ago to take evasive whatever, but nobody did nothing,” Smith said. “So now there’s an uncertainty for my health and the future health of the residents of North Pole.”
Not all who showed up for the open house shared those concerns. Some indicated they just came by to take a look at the maps and get an update.
And it’s not unusual for people to perceive that they haven’t been fully informed, even though as in this case, state and local governments have held several meetings and issued newsletters and other forms of outreach.
But the concern is understandable, says Ann Farris, an environmental engineer with the state Department of Environmental Conservation who served as project manager of the multiagency team formed to deal with the sulfolane problem.
Farris says the issue is complex – more so because not much is known about sulfolane and the effect on human health from exposure to the chemical, which is used in oil refining and other industrial applications.
“I think it is really hard to grasp that little North Pole Alaska is the first to grapple with sulfolane,” Farris said.
Farris says as far as she knows, this is the biggest plume of sulfolane groundwater contamination ever, and it’s the biggest groundwater-contamination plume involving an industrial substance in Alaska.
“It’s a very big deal,” she said. “I mean, it’s definitely, for the contaminated-sites program, it’s the top priority.”
Farris says the multiagency team has a pretty good idea on the extent of the contamination, based on the estimated perimeter of groundwater plume with sulfolane content of 14 parts per billion. That perimeter measures roughly 3 miles-by-2-and-a-half miles laterally, north and northwest of the refinery, and at least 300 feet vertically, according to a drinking-water well sample. Samples on monitoring wells in that area range from traces to a few readings near the refinery around 350 ppb.
Farris says the plume doesn’t appear to be spreading, but is forming some worrisome levels of concentrations in some areas.
She and her team want to be as cautious as possible in remediating the problem, so they've set a stricter standard that will be the goal for cleaning up the groundwater – 14 parts per billion. That’s down from the previous standard of 20 parts per billion.
State health officials compare that concentration to adding 14 drops of a substance into an Olympic-size swimming pool.
“It is possibly overprotective,” she said. “The companies might argue that. And it is possible that with more testing, we might find sulfolane to be less toxic. But for now, given all the uncertainty, that’s why that number’s been changed.”