Closing arguments were heard on Tuesday in the ongoing trial between the state of Alaska, Flint Hills Resources and Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. centered on water contamination in North Pole from a now-closed oil refinery.
David Wilkinson, attorney for the state, asked the court to hold Williams Alaska Petroleum “liable for its decades of hazardous substance pollution emanating from the North Pole refinery.”
In late 2009, sulfolane, a manmade chemical compound used in the refining process, was detected in wells near the North Pole refinery, which Williams previously owned. At the time the detection was reported, the refinery was owned by Flint Hills Resources, which bought the site in 2004. Flint Hills closed the refinery a few years after the discovery of the sulfolane, before selling the terminal to Marathon Petroleum this summer.
The two companies and the state have been engaged in litigation surrounding the sulfolane plume in North Pole for nearing a decade.
Wilkinson argued that Williams engaged in “unpermitted releases” of sulfolane, which violated prohibitions on hazardous substance releases, pollution and oil discharges.
“Through this trial Williams has raised no arguments or presented any evidence that would avoid liability,” he said. “Consistently, your honor, we’ve heard two arguments: one, that when it operated the refinery sulfolane was not regulated, and, two, that the state has not set a cleanup level for sulfolane. Neither argument holds water.”
Wilkinson recalled witness testimony to argue that sulfolane is considered a hazardous material and has been historically treated as such at the refinery. He further said the argument that the state has not set a cleanup level does not stop Williams from being liable, nor did Williams act when there were cleanup levels in place in 2006 and 2014.
“Williams should be liable for the state’s costs and damages and should also be subject to declaratory and injunctive relief,” he said.
David Shoup, the attorney representing Williams, doubled down on the lack of an established cleanup level, noting that the state regulations are “front and center in this litigation.”
Shoup said that the regulation states the responsible person will use permanent remedies to meet the applicable cleanup levels determined.
Shoup also clashed with the attorney for Flint Hills Resources, Jan Conlin, over the language of the sales agreement between the two companies.
Conlin, in her closing, noted that Williams retained certain liabilities, as per the sales agreement for the refinery site. She pointed to a model of the size of the plume at the time Williams sold the refinery,
“Williams retained, unambiguously in the contract—retained liabilities for unknown undisclosed and offsite sulfolane at the time Flint Hills took over the refinery on April 1, 2004,” she said.
Conlin said that offsite was an express condition Williams agreed to indemnify Flint Hills for, with Flint Hills maintaining responsibility for its own portion.
Shoup argued that the agreement, which holds “Williams shall indemnify the buyer except to the extent damages are caused or contributed to by the buyer,” means, in this case, except to the extent that the buyer contributed to the plume.
After time devoted to rebuttal for each party, Judge Warren Matthews expressed appreciation for the counsels’ work, noting they presented “a comprehensible body of facts” throughout the trial. He set a time period of three weeks for all three parties to submit simultaneous proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law.
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