Flint Hills refinery asks for looser cleanup standards

Flint Hills continues to push for a less stringent standard for removal of a spilled chemical from groundwater at the company’s shuttered North Pole refinery. Removal of the industrial solvent sulfolane is costing the refinery a lot of money, and opinions differ on how clean groundwater should be.

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Historic sulfone spills at the refinery spread to groundwater, and Flint Hills is trying to purge the chemical from the water according to a state clean up plan. The state set the clean up standard of 15 parts per billion while it awaits results of two-year federal study on health effects of drinking low concentrations of the chemical.

Flint Hills has asked the Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation to consider upping the standard to 362 parts per billion, a level Flint Hills spokesman Jeff Cook says is backed by a state sanctioned review.

“They went ahead and convened a panel of experts last fall at the University of Alaska. And they determined — with the consideration of being safe,and putting in some parameters to take care of uncertainties — that Flint Hills was on the right track.”

Flint Hills has filed a request seeking an adjudicatory hearing on the clean up standard. Cook says it costs Flint Hills significantly more money to meet the more stringent standard, but stresses that the company continues to adhere to it.

The body of research on sulfolane is small relative to what’s known about effects other industrial contaminants and DEC Spill Prevention and Response Director Kristin Ryan points to that uncertainty in erring on the cautious side until the study, using testing on animals is complete.

Ryan stresses that the cleanup standard Flint Hills is contesting is for groundwater cleanup on  refinery property.

The on site contamination is the source of pollution that’s spread to wells on hundreds of  surrounding properties in North Pole, where about 1,500 people live. Flint Hills has been providing effected residents with drinking water alternatives, including bulk water deliveries and installation of well water filtration systems, since the contamination was first discovered off site in 2009.