State to partner on North Pole contaminated wells study

Photo/Tim Bradner/AJOC

The State of Alaska, Flint Hills Resources and Williams Alaska Petroleum are sharing costs of a $1.75 million engineering study for a piped water distribution system to homeowners in North Pole whose water wells are affected by sulfolane contamination from the nearby Flint Hills refinery.

State Attorney General Michael Geraghty announced the agreement July 11. The state’s share of the cost would be $585,000.

The study, being done by Fairbanks Sewer & Water Inc., will develop costs estimates and a construction schedule, according to a statement issued by Geraghty.

If a piped water system can be installed, and preliminary cost estimates have ranged from $30 million to $50 million, it could make a difference in establishing a cleanup standard for the sulfolane.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is now weighing that question. If the state’s drinking-water quality standard is used, which might be the case if residents near the refinery continue to rely on water wells, the costs of cleanup would be very high and cleaning to that standard may not be technically feasible.

Costs and feasibility of the cleanup are major factors in an eventual agreement on shared liability for the contamination between Flint Hills, the current owner of the property, Williams, the previous owner, and the state itself, which also owned the land.

State Rep. Doug Isaacson, who represents North Pole, said the cost-sharing agreement is significant because it is the first time the parties involved in litigation over the spill liability — Flint Hills, Williams and the state — have agreed to anything since the state filed a suit in state court March 6 to clarify liability issues.

How the total cost of constructing the water system is to be paid is not clear. Local residents might be expected to foot part of the bill but it is more likely that Flint Hills, Williams and the state will foot most of it.

Flint Hills closed the refinery in June due to long-standing commercial issues but continues to operate fuel storage and marketing facilities.

The spill of sulfolane, a chemical used in the production of gasoline at the refinery, began under Williams’ ownership and continued under Flint Hills.

For many years it was thought the sulfolane plume existed only under the land owned by the refinery but testing in recent years showed that it had spread off the property though the underground water movement, showing up in local water wells.

Flint Hills moved to supply bottled drinking water to residents who are affected, and continues to do so.

Isaacson said that if the piped water system can be installed, linking the residents to the nearby City of North Pole water system, the state may be able to settle on a lower standard for cleanup because local residents will no longer have to rely on water wells.

The cleanup issue is complicated by other sources of contamination in the area including from nearby military bases that have long existed, he said. North Pole is between Fort Wainwright, in Fairbanks, and Eielson Air Force Base, which is east of the city.

Recent heavy rains in Interior Alaska may be complicating the groundwater situation as well, either spreading the contamination or diluting it, Isaacson said. “I’ve asked the Department of Environmental Conservation to look into this. I have heard from one constituent whose well is now contaminated and was uncontaminated previously,” he said.

The saturation of water, which has resulted in the flooding of local basements, may also be working to dissolve the contamination plume, Isaacson said.

Assistant State Attorney General Steve Mulder, who heads the environmental section in the Department of Law, said the agreement on the water system study is not directly connected to the lawsuit over liability. That will proceed on its own schedule, Mulder said.

 “We’re just at the beginning stages on this, in the discovery process,” to develop a factual basis for the proceedings, he said. Lawsuits involving liability for contamination typically take a long time, although they are often settled by the parties involved, he said.

07/16/2014 - 2:13pm