Panel Completes Review of Standard Used to Set Refinery-Pollution Cleanup Level

Flint Hills Resources-Alaska closed its refinery in North Pole in May, citing rising costs associated with cleaning up sulfolane contamination in area groundwater and other economic factors. (Credit KUAC file photo)
Flint Hills Resources-Alaska closed its refinery in North Pole in May, citing rising costs associated with cleaning up sulfolane contamination in area groundwater and other economic factors.
(Credit KUAC file photo)

A panel of experts wrapped up two days of meetings Thursday in Fairbanks that will help the state Department of Environmental Conservation determine the appropriate cleanup level for contamination of North Pole’s groundwater caused by chemicals leaking from the refinery now owned by Flint Hills Resources.

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DEC asked scientists with Ohio-based Toxicology Excellence for Risk Assessment, or TERA, to take a second look at the reference doses used by the state agency in setting a stringent cleanup level for sulfolane, an industrial solvent that leaked from the refinery over several years.

The TERA panelists reviewed scientific literature on reference doses used by DEC to come up with the 14-parts-per-billion cleanup standard that the agency says Flint Hills must attain before DEC will declare the water safe to drink.

“It’s a very important step in the process,” says DEC environmental program manager Bill O’Connell.

O’Connell says the agency will now use the TERA panel’s work to help it determine whether the 14-parts-per billion cleanup standard is warranted.

“Once TERA submits a written report, which will be in about two months, the DEC will take their recommendations under advisement,” he said. “And then we will go forward and calculate a cleanup level based on the reference dose that they have coalesced around.”

Flint Hills Resources officials told DEC late last year that they believe the 14-parts-per billion standard is overly stringent. They say the level should set at about 25 times that level – around 363 parts-per-billion.

Flint Hills asked DEC to reconsider the cleanup level; in April, Commissioner Larry Hartig agreed.

In February, Flint Hills officials cited the stringent cleanup level as one of the reasons they can’t operate the refinery profitably. They closed it in May, and now operate a fuel terminal in one part of the facility.

Flint Hills and the former refinery operator, along with the state, have all filed lawsuits against each other in efforts to assign blame and liability for the cleanup.

O’Connell says DEC will send its final recommendation on a cleanup level to agency Hartig by the end of the year. Hartig will issue a ruling thereafter.