North Pole Files Lawsuit over Sulfolane Contamination

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Flint Hills Resources refinery
The Flint Hills Resources North Pole Refinery is one of two in-state refineries serving Alaska. The other is in Nikiski and owned by Tesoro. (Photo credit: Eric Engman/News-Miner)

Article courtesy of Rod Boyce, | November 26, 2014 | | Shared as educational material

FAIRBANKS—The city of North Pole filed a lawsuit Wednesday against the two most recent owners of the oil refinery within its borders over sulfolane contamination that has spread into residents’ groundwater.

A news release from the city announced the filing against current refinery owner Flint Hills Alaska Resources and previous owner Williams Alaska Petroleum.

The city’s news release indicates additional defendants might be named.

“It’s come to this for several reasons,” North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “The state filed suit and is making decisions. We want to be a party. We should be at the table when decisions are made.”

Ward also noted that the statute of limitations on the city’s opportunity to file a lawsuit is approaching. The North Pole City Council decided, in closed session at its Monday meeting, to proceed with a lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed, according to the city’s news release, to “ensure that the health and economic interests of city residents are fully considered and addressed as part of the resolution of the sulfolane contamination issue.”

The lawsuit squarely blames Flint Hills and Williams for the pollution.

“During the times that the defendants owned or operated the refinery, the defendants caused or allowed numerous and/or continuous releases of hazardous substances into the groundwater located beneath the refinery, and failed to contain or remediate the hazardous substances,” the lawsuit reads. “Ultimately, these hazardous substances have migrated off the refinery property and have contaminated the groundwater down gradient of the refinery and within the city, including wells owned by the city and supplying drinking water to the city’s inhabitants.”

The lawsuit goes on to identify sulfolane as one of the substances in question.

“The presence of sulfolane contamination in the city’s groundwater has rendered that groundwater unfit for human consumption and endangers the public health or welfare, or fish, animals, vegetation or any other part of the natural habitat in which it is found,” it reads.

The lawsuit cites damage to the local real estate market and the additional costs associated with developing property and building within the contamination plume. It also says the city government has incurred costs associated with the sulfolane contamination.

Development within the city will be delayed by the contamination, resulting in less revenue from sales and property taxes, the suit says. The suit mentions other costs resulting from the contamination.

The city is seeking to have the contamination cleaned up and to have Flint Hills and Williams Alaska pay the cost of that cleanup. The city also wants restitution for past and future damages, including damage to water wells, loss of income and loss of means to produce income.

The city is also seeking punitive damages, to be determined by the court, but only from Williams Alaska, who the lawsuit accuses of acting “with reckless disregard of the rights of, the property of, and the residents of the City.”

“Based on the information we have, there was some reckless disregard while Williams was in control of that facility,” Ward said.

“Flint Hills at this point has been willing to work with the community and do so to clean things up. There was a short period of time from when they owned it to when they started with those actions.”

Flint Hills acquired the refinery from Williams Alaska in 2004.

Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook said the company had no immediate comment on the lawsuit.

“It’s not appropriate in view of the lawsuit to discuss additional details outside of court,” he said. “We look forward to our day in court.”

Flint Hills and the state of Alaska last month reached an agreement about sulfolane cleanup methods to be used at the refinery. That agreement is limited to the refinery; it does not extend to the off-site areas of the contamination plume. Nor does it affect the lawsuits pending between the state and Flint Hills regarding the cleanup level and who is responsible for the plume’s cleanup.

Contact managing editor Rod Boyce at 459-7585. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMeditor.

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