Flint Hills refinery

Flint Hills Refinery in North Pole is seen in this 2012 file photo.

The legal battle over the water contamination in North Pole continued Monday during opening arguments of a new trial.

In 2009, the chemical compound sulfolane was detected in water wells near the North Pole Refinery, owned by Flint Hills Resources at the time. Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc. had sold the refinery to Flint Hills in 2004. However, as the sulfolane spill began under Williams’ ownership, the two companies and the state remain locked in a dispute over damage claims.

State of Alaska Chief Assistant Attorney General Steve Mulder argued that Williams engaged in unpermitted releases, that sulfolane is hazardous and that the pollution has “wreaked havoc” in North Pole.

“Evidence will show that Williams polluted the state’s land and waters, then sold the refinery and left,” Mulder said. “Since 2010, nearly a decade ago, Williams has ignored the state’s demand to help remediate the problem it created. That’s why we’re here; that’s why this is not an ordinary environmental case.”

Flint Hills Resources Attorney Jan Conlin said that, during the past 10 years of litigation, Williams has not contributed to efforts to clean up the spill.

“They blamed the state, they blamed the city, they blamed Flint Hills, and they blamed the citizens of the North Pole community,” Conlin said.

Conlin argued that when Flint Hills Resources took ownership of the North Pole Refinery, it agreed to responsibility for contaminants that were “known,” “at the real property,” and “specifically identified.” She further argued the sulfolane plume was not known, was offsite and was not identified or disclosed to Flint Hills Resources at the time.

“They breached the contract, your honor,” she said. “They had a duty to step up. They retained a liability to the onsite sulfolane plume, and they haven’t ever done anything to help.”

She said Williams had a duty to indemnify Flint Hills for the work that it did and the costs it incurred. 

On the other side of the courtroom, attorney David Shoup, with Williams Petroleum, said sulfolane is not considered a hazardous chemical by the state, nor was it a regulated chemical at the time of the spill.

Furthermore, he said, neither Williams Alaska Petroleum nor Flint Hills Resources is under obligation to clean up the spill as the state has not set a cleanup standard. Shoup had noted the possible standard, listed in parts per billion, has shifted throughout the course of this case.

“Unless there is a cleanup standard, there is no way to know what we have to do to clean up,” he said.

The trial continues today.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on at twitter.com/FDNMlocal