Refinery Owner Asks State to Consider Lower Cleanup Level for Tainted Groundwater

Jan 13, 2014

The operator of the North Pole refinery wants to state to set a lower standard for cleaning up the sulfolane groundwater-contamination problem in the North Pole area. Flint Hills Resources Alaska has asked the head of the state Department of Environmental Conservation to set a less-stringent cleanup level for the industrial solvent that leaked into the groundwater for more than a decade before Flint Hills bought the refinery in 2004. The requests could delay cleanup for several months.

Flint Hills Resources Alaska bought the 240-acre refinery in North Pole from Williams Alaska Petroleum in 2004.
Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC

The DEC team that’s been working on the sulfolane contamination had hoped by now to be studying final reports on the problem and preparing to review Flint Hills plans to clean it up, starting about a year from now

But Tamara Cardona, who heads up the DEC’s team, says that schedule is up in the air now.

“But there’s been a little bit of a hiccup now that Flint Hills has formally challenged the cleanup level that was established back in 2012,” Cardona said.

Cardona can’t say how much the schedule will be pushed back by that “hiccup.” She says that’ll depend on whether DEC Commissioner Larry Hartig grants Flint Hills’ request to put the process on hold while he reconsiders the cleanup level that Flint Hills must attain to declare the area’s groundwater safe to drink.

“As for any other work, it’s pending on this decision,” she said.

Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook declined to comment on tape Friday. But in a written response, he states that Flint Hills believes the DEC’s proposed 14-parts-per billion cleanup level is unnecessarily stringent, and that a higher level could be set that would protect human health. A Flint Hills document filed with DEC on Dec. 20 suggests the cleanup level could instead be safely set at about 25 times the level set by DEC – at 362 parts-per-billion

The response also reiterates Flint Hills’ request that DEC require the refinery’s previous owners, Williams Alaska Petroleum, to participate in the cleanup process. The two companies are entangled in a years-long lawsuit over who’s liable, and for how much.

Cardona says she can’t say much about Flint Hills’ requests while they’re before the commissioner.

“Now, it’s a matter of waiting for how the commissioner is going to respond,” she said.
The commissioner’s spokesman declined to comment Friday. A spokesman for the Attorney General’s office says Hartig must rule by the end of February on whether he’ll agree to reconsider the cleanup level. And if he does, the spokesman says that process could take several more months.

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Luke Hopkins has for more than a year now been urging state and federal environmental agencies to get the cleanup process moving along more quickly. Hopkins says while the bureaucracies plod along and weigh Flint Hills’s requests, nothing is being done to stop the sulfolane from spreading through the groundwater underneath North Pole and Fairbanks.

“The aquifer is at approximately the same levels that it had before, in terms of sulfolane,” Hopkins said. “So we just keep seeing the date move on, and I don’t see a lot of action happening, and I don’t see a plan yet.”

North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward says he’s glad that residents of the area affected by sulfolane are still getting the drinking water from Flint Hills while the debate over the appropriate cleanup level plays out.

“Are they putting a very conservative number out there? I think that’s probably a safe assumption,” Ward said. “But the trick is, the true question is ‘what is safe for consumption?’ Personally, I wouldn’t want to drink any of it.”

Not much is known about the health effects of consuming sulfolane, but tests are about to get under way to answer that question. Cardona says the National Toxicology Program will begin testing this month with laboratory animal subjects. She says results of those tests should be available in three to five years.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that Flint Hills Resources Alaska provided a written response to KUAC on Saturday outlining among other things the basis of the company’s request for DEC reconsideration of its 14-parts-per-billion sulfolane cleanup level.