Judge hears closing arguments in North Pole Refinery Groundwater Pollution case

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (KTVF) 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. Attorneys for the State of Alaska, Flint Hills Resources and Williams Alaska Petroleum gave their final arguments before Senior Supreme Court Justice Warren Matthews on Tuesday. Now he will begin working on his ruling in the case which he said he wants to have finished before Christmas.

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)

The case which has spent years in the court system was brought to trial at the beginning of October. The state of Alaska, North Pole and Flint Hills Resources are suing Williams Alaska Petroleum for their role in the spills of hazardous chemicals that seeped into the groundwater of North Pole. Sulfolane was discovered in the groundwater of North Pole in 2009. Since then the State, City of North Pole and Flint Hills have been working to contain and fix the problem as well as provide safe drinking water to residents of North Pole.

Williams Alaska, which built and owned the refinery until selling it to Flint Hills in 2004 was accused by the State of dumping sulfolane into the ground and mishandling a lagoon that was meant to contain the pollutant.

“Williams had a history of unpermitted releases,” said State Attorney David Wilkinson. “These unpermitted [releases] trigger liability under [statute] 46.03.822 because sulfolane is a hazardous substance and it is a hazardous substance for several reasons. Williams has admitted as much, DEC has determined it is and its decision should be given agency deference, sulfolane impacts public health, and public welfare.”

Williams counters these claims saying the substance was never regulated as a hazardous substance until after they sold the refinery. They also say that the state hasn’t set a cleanup level for the ground water so they have no way of knowing what they actually need to do to solve the problem. They also said the state mislead the public as to what level of sulfolane in the water is unhealthy.

Flint hills is also suing Williams, seeking to have the court require Williams to help pay for their cost incurred in dealing with the leaked sulfolane. They claim they have spent over $130 million to deal with the problem including helping pay for a new piped water system in North Pole. They claim that they have gone out of their way take responsibility for their contribution to the pollution and to help residents of North Pole have clean drinking water. Flint Hills claims that Williams is responsible for over 80% of the contamination. Jan Conlin, a Flint Hills attorney, said they have taken responsibility for their actions but Williams has not.

Williams accused Flint Hills of delaying clean up and misusing funds from an insurance policy that Williams had purchased.

“’Douglas Bower of ADEC concurred with our recommendations, unfortunately our recommendations were not implemented. We believe both the sulfolane and benzene issues the refinery now faces might have been averted had the actions we recommended been taken.’ So there was delay,” said David Shoup, attorney for Williams Alaska quoting in part from a State complaint.

They also claim that they would have helped with the cleanup had the State and Flint Hills presented a reasonable fix. Williams took issue with the piped water system saying that it was unnecessary and claiming that it was installed beyond where sulfolane has been detected.

Flint Hills and the State are seeking for a judgement that makes Williams pay for their part of the problem while Williams is seeking to make the state set a cleanup level for sulfolane in the ground water and to shift more of the responsibility to Flint Hills.

Justice Matthews gave each side three weeks to present their findings of facts and law to him.

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