Judge rules former owners of North Pole refinery owe millions

After nearly a month of witness testimony, arguments and cross examinations, the trial surrounding the groundwater contamination resulting from spilled chemicals at the North Pole Refinery has come to a close. (John Dougherty/KTVF)

FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) Superior Court Judge Warren Matthews has ruled against the former owners of the North Pole Refinery. In a 184-page decision released Friday, Judge Matthews ruled that Williams Alaska Petroleum is liable for 75% of the damages related to groundwater pollution from the refinery, while Flint Hills is only responsible for 25%. The ruling will require Williams Alaska to pay the State of Alaska and Flint Hills millions of dollars to help pay for the cleanup of the groundwater as well as a piped water system installed in North Pole to help ensure clean water to North Pole residents.

Williams Alaska Petroleum owned the refinery from its construction in 1977 till 2004 when it sold the refinery to Flint Hills. In 2009 Flint hills found that sulfolane had leaked outside of the refinery and into the ground water of North Pole. The State of Alaska sued Williams and Flint Hills. Flint Hills settled with the State while Williams decided to fight the suit.

Flint Hills, who has spent over $130 million working to provide clean water to North Pole residents has joined the lawsuit, claiming Williams created the problem but hasn’t helped clean it up. The judge sided with Flint Hills against Williams.

Judge Matthews' summary read:

"Between 1985 when sulfolane was first used at the refinery until 2014 when the refinery was shut down, large quantities of sulfolane contained in oil, refinery products and wastewater were released into the ground and groundwater beneath the refinery. In the groundwater the sulfolane fractionated from its host fluids, mixed with the groundwater, and traveled with it. As a result a large plume of contaminated groundwater spread into and beyond the City of North Pole. The plume is currently three and a half miles long, two miles wide and as deep as 300 feet. It has not expanded significantly since the refinery shut down, but even today quantities of sulfolane continue to flow from the refinery site. The plume will last for a lengthy, but indeterminate time."

According to the ruling, Williams may have to pay close to $100 million for their part in the contamination. In addition to the sulfolane contamination, the ruling also found that Williams is guilty of leaking PFAS into the groundwater.

Superior Court Judge Pro Tem Warren W. Matthews found Williams liable to the State for costs and damages, including:

• $4,054,589 for the State’s costs of overseeing response to the pollution;

• $11,599,681, plus an estimated $3,250,000 pending, for the State’s contribution to the piped water system constructed in response to the sulfolane pollution;

• $3,377,500 for natural resources damages;

• Future response costs; and

• Remediation and cleanup efforts as directed by the State.

Williams denies these accusations saying the amount of sulfolane in the groundwater isn't harmful and accusing the state of mishandling the situation. The judge ruled against this claiming that even Williams had admitted that sulfolane is a hazardous substance.

“Although it now argues that sulfolane is not a hazardous substance, Williams previously admitted sulfolane’s status as a hazardous substance in its answer, in a stipulation, in its conduct as a refinery operator, and via witness testimony,” the decision read.

At publishing time, we were unable to get statements from Williams Alaska Petroleum, Flint Hills, or the Mayor of North Pole.

Portions of the documents can be read here.

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