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Former owner of North Pole refinery ordered to pay over $29 million in water pollution case

The former owner of a North Pole crude oil refinery has been ordered to pay millions in damages for releasing large amounts of a refinery solvent, sulfolane, into groundwater and polluting hundreds of residents’ drinking water wells.

Superior Court Judge Pro Tem Warren Matthews in Fairbanks ordered Williams Alaska Petroleum, former owner of the North Pole Refinery, to pay $29.4 million for costs and damages.

He also ordered Williams Alaska to pay future response costs and partially reimburse the company that bought the refinery, Flint Hills Resources LLC.

Flint Hills has spent more than $130 million to provide clean water to affected residents, Fairbanks television station KTVF reported, and reimbursement could add tens of millions to the judgement.

Matthews allocated 75% of the spill liability to Williams and 25% to Flint Hills in the trial to decide the allocation of responsibility.

Alaska Deputy Attorney General Treg Taylor said Williams had not been cooperative throughout the process of attempting to assign responsibility and restore clean water to residents.

“Despite being responsible for most of the pollution, Williams chose not to work with the State of Alaska in coming up with a solution and instead chose litigation,” Taylor said in a prepared statement. “We’re pleased that the court affirmed the basic principle that under Alaska law the polluter pays.”

David Shoup of Anchorage, an attorney for Williams Alaska, was traveling Friday afternoon and could not immediately respond to a request for comment, his office said.

The refinery was built in 1977 in North Pole, a city of 2,100 about 14 miles south of Fairbanks. The refinery tapped crude from the trans-Alaska pipeline and refined it into jet fuel, heating fuel and other products.

Williams in 2004 sold the refinery to Flint Hills Resources. Five years later, sulfolane was found in nearby water wells. Flint Hills closed the refinery a few years later.

The two companies and the state engaged in litigation surrounding the sulfolane plume for nearly a decade.

The trial opened in October. An attorney for Flint Hills, Jan Conlin, said sulfolane was not disclosed in the sale and Williams had not contributed to cleanup efforts during years of litigation.

Shoup during the trial said sulfolane was not considered a hazardous chemical by the state and was not a regulated chemical at the time of the spill. He said neither Williams Petroleum nor Flint Hills Resources was under obligation to clean the spill because the state had not set a cleanup standard.

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