North Pole council passes resolution backing strict cleanup standard at Flint Hills

Zaz Hollander

The city that sits over a six-square-mile underground plume of sulfolane, an industrial solvent, from the Flint Hills oil refinery in North Pole supports a tough cleanup standard backed by state officials and opposed by refinery owners.

The North Pole City Council on Monday night unanimously approved a resolution that backs a 14 parts per billion cleanup level proposed by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation, a level that's now under fire from Flint Hills owners, who won at least a temporary reprieve from the agency's top official last week.

The North Pole resolution, passed 6-0 with one member absent, reflects the fact that half of the plume's total area flows beneath the city, Mayor Bryce Ward said Tuesday.

City officials at the meeting agreed to advocate that all properties within North Pole boundaries that have been contaminated with sulfolane are connected to city drinking water if they aren't already "to ensure public health," according to the resolution. It leaves the door open to future annexation.

That applies to estimated four or five occupied properties as well as several large, undeveloped tracts zoned for residential or commercial buildings at a cost currently estimated at $4 million to $5 million, the mayor said.

The resolution supports a zoning overlay to identify sulfolane for "future generations" as well as a fund to pay for monitoring of the plume.

"There is a sense of responsibility, a sense of urgency that has been further pushed with the announcement of the shutdown of the refinery," Ward said in an interview.

Flint Hills is owned by the Kansas-based multinational corporation Koch Industries Inc., owned by the politically active Koch brothers.

The company announced in early February that it planned to end refinery operations by June, partly over costly groundwater contamination cleanup issues that company officials say they inherited from the plant's former owner.

The state's level will dictate both cleanup costs and how much Flint Hills might have to pay to supply safe drinking water. State officials say the company has said they're paying $2 million a year on bottled or tanked water or filters for residents over the plume.

The refinery owners in December demanded a hearing on groundwater cleanup levels for sulfolane. Flint Hills contended that the agency's Division of Spill Prevention and Response failed to justify its rejection of the company's proposed cleanup level of 362 parts per billion -- more than 25 times higher than the level backed by the state.

Flint Hills argued that its consultant used "good science" to come up with an alternative cleanup standard, but the state ignored its proposal without providing specific reasons why.

Officials say the state's standard was based on U.S. Environmental Protection Agency guidelines that reflect scientific uncertainty about the human health risks posed by sulfolane, an industrial solvent used in gasoline production.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation's top official, Commissioner Larry Hartig, on April 4 issued a decision essentially siding with Flint Hills when it came to the state's record of its decision.

Rather than grant the company's request for a hearing, however, Hartig threw out his agency's November directive to apply the 14 parts per billion standard.

Instead, he instructed division staff to come up with another standard, while also noted he was not instructing the division on what the standard should be.

The division's director, Kristin Ryan, this week said she stands behind the standard, but acknowledged the division did not provide the record necessary to back it up. It's possible the same cleanup level will emerge again, Ryan said.

North Pole's resolution doesn't specifically address the dispute between the state and the refinery owner.

Along with support for the tougher cleanup level, the city's statement noted that cleanup of the watershed to a sulfolane level of 14 parts per billion -- 14 drops from an eyedropper into an Olympic-sized swimming pool -- "is impractical for a majority of the area contaminated with sulfolane within the city."

Reach Zaz Hollander at or 257-4317.