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Closing arguments made in North Pole refinery pollution case

FAIRBANKS — An Alaska judge will decide who is liable for the cleanup of a substance that leaked from a North Pole oil refinery and contaminated nearby water wells.

Superior Court Judge Warren Matthews was considering a ruling after hearing closing arguments Tuesday at the trial focused on sulfolane, a substance used in refining, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

An attorney for the state, David Wilkinson, asked the court to hold Williams Alaska Petroleum liable for decades of hazardous substance pollution from the refinery that drew crude oil from the trans-Alaska pipeline and refined it into heating oil, jet fuel and other products.

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

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

In his closing argument, Wilkinson disputed claims by Williams that sulfolane was not properly regulated and that the state had not set proper cleanup levels for sulfolane.

"Neither argument holds water," Wilkinson said, asserting that Williams engaged in releases of sulfolane that violated state prohibitions.

Wilkinson noted that witnesses had said sulfolane historically had been treated as a hazardous material. The argument that Alaska had not set a cleanup level does not relieve Williams of liability, he said.

In addition, Williams did not act when cleanup levels were in place after 2006, he said.

Attorney David Shoup, representing Williams, said state regulations are "front and center" in the litigation. He said Flint Hills has responsibility for pollution caused after the sale.

Attorney Jan Conlin, representing Flint Hills, said Williams retained liabilities for pollution.

“Williams retained - unambiguously in the contract - retained liabilities for unknown undisclosed and offsite sulfolane at the time Flint Hills took over the refinery on April 1, 2004,” she said.