Feds to Investigate Groundwater Contamination in North Pole

A federal agency will conduct a study to determine the danger of drinking groundwater contaminated by the industrial solvent sulfolane in the North Pole area. The research was sought by the state of Alaska as it tries to set a clean up level for wells tainted by sufolane from spills at a local oil refinery. The new study will delay a determination on what constitutes safe water.

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There’s a lot riding on the clean up standard, which determines what’s entailed in addressing sulfolane groundwater contamination stemming from historic spills at the North pole refinery most recently operated by Flint Hills Resources.  Little is known about health impacts of consuming sulfolane tainted water, and Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation Spill Prevention and Response Director Kristin Ryan says a federal agency has agreed to undertake a 2 year study.

Last year Flint Hills challenged a very conservative 14 parts per billion preliminary clean up level.  The state promised a response by the end of 2014, and Flint Hill spokesman Jeff Cook says the company is disappointed with DEC’s decision to delay. He cites findings of a group of toxicologists the DEC assembled last year.

There’s been no laboratory research on long term health impacts of drinking sulfolane tainted water. The DEC’s Ryan says the two-year federal study will employ animal testing.

About 1,500 people living on North Pole area properties where wells have tested positive for sulfolane contamination have been provided alternative water sources by Flint Hills.  The company stopped operating the refinery last year citing costs related to the sulfolane issue as one of the reasons. Flint Hills, former refinery owner Williams and the state are embroiled in legal wrangling over responsibility for the contamination.