North Pole municipality expands water system to areas impacted by sulfolane spill

An agreement between the State of Alaska, City of North Pole and Flint Hills Resources will expand the municipal water system to properties impacted by spills at a former refinery. The refinery, closed by Flint Hills two years ago, was the site of historic spills of the industrial solvent sulfolane. The settlement covers more than 650 parcels of land, where North Pole Mayor Bryce Ward said affected residents will have access to public drinking water.

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”Provides for an expansion of the full utility system within the city boundaries, as well as outside city boundaries to include the existing sulfolane plume and then also a buffer around that,” Ward said.

Ward added that connection charges are covered under the agreement, which also lays out timeline for the expansion.

“Construction is expected to begin in 2018 and then operation of phase one and two would be 2019,” Ward said. “And then construction of phase two and three would be 2019 as well.”

Flint Hills has provided impacted residents with drinking water since the contamination was discovered, and Mayor Ward says that will continue until the expansion reaches their property. The settlement covers areas where ground water is projected to be impacted by 2030, but State Director of Spill prevention and Response Kristen Ryan said no one will be left out.

”If our modeling is off and homes are impacted that are not on the pipe water system, there’s a commitment that water would be provided if their drinking water is impacted above the EPA screening level for sulfolane,” Ryan said.

The ground water contamination was first reported in 2009, and it’s unclear how long area residents were drinking from tainted wells. Little is known about long term impacts of consuming sulfolane, and Ryan says the state is awaiting research results.
The sulfolane spills at the former North Pole refinery primarily occurred when the facility was owned by William Alaska Petroleum, and Ryan says the current settlement does not include the former owner.

”…And we will continue that litigation with a trial set right now for May,” Ryan said.

Williams could end up contributing to the North Pole municipal water system expansion, which is estimated to cost up to one hundred million dollars. Under the current agreement, Flint Hills will cover eighty percent of the cost, while the state covers twenty percent. A public open house about the water system expansion is scheduled for February 25th at the North Pole Library.