Witness testimony dominated the second day of the trial between the State of Alaska, Flint Hills Resources and Williams Alaska Petroleum, Inc.
The conflict between the parties stems from a near decade-long dispute over damage claims. Back during 2009, sulfolane, a chemical compound, was detected in wells near the North Pole refinery, which was owned by Flint Hills Resources at the time. Flint Hills bought the property from Williams in 2004 and, since the discovery of the sulfolane leak, shut down the refinery a few years ago before selling the terminal to Marathon Petroleum this summer.
As the refinery was owned by Williams when the leak began, the companies and the state have been engaged in legal debates since 2010.
Borough Mayor Bryce Ward was called to give testimony and was questioned by lawyers from the State of Alaska and Williams Petroleum. Ward was mayor of North Pole from 2012 to 2018. He was a North Pole city councilman for a year prior to that and has been living in the city since 2010. Ward is also a general contractor, operating in the North Pole area.
State of Alaska Chief Assistant Attorney General Steve Mulder asked Ward how big of a challenge it was to handle the sulfolane contamination.
“The groundwater contamination was probably one of the bigger issues that we had to deal with when I was mayor,” he said. “The constant press, the concern from the residents were all very much a part of what I did in the communication I had with the public and with our council.”
Ward later said people came into his office in North Pole regularly to talk about their concerns over the contamination, how long the sulfolane had been in the water, the possible impacts on health and worries over property values. He noted people would routinely stop him in stores to discuss the matter and that it had generally negative effects on community welfare.
“How important is it to the community to have clean water?” Mulder asked.
Ward responded access to clean water is critically important to the community, for health reasons.
“Urban communities such as the city area rely on clean sources of water, rely on the ability to, in areas that are not on the municipal system, draw on the water supply to have that clean source of water,” he said. “It’s a key component of anything that we would consider under the headlines of economic development. If there’s not clean water then it definitely impacts the ability for that area to be developed and for folks to live there.”
Mulder also brought forth a Chapter of North Pole Municipal Code, section 13.32.010 of which outlines provisions for drilling water wells. This section of the code prohibits water wells within the city limits for properties located within or projected to be within the sulfolane plume with a sulfolane level of sixteen parts per billion or greater.
Ward testified that he has not built inside the plume as a contractor and that he has seen evidence of an impact to home sales as result of the plume.
Attorney David Shoup, representing Williams Petroleum, denied that home sales were impacted, presenting a real estate appraisers consultants market analysis from 2016.
The document, which describes data from 2005 through 2016, notes that homes continue to sell and be refinanced within and outside of the sulfolane plume, without “noticeable decline” in sales activity or values in the area.
The topic was debated, as Ward said as part of the same assessor’s deposition in the 2009-10 time frame, wherein there was a graph showing a divergence in property values.
Shoup also brought forward a document from the Department of Health and Social Services, published in 2012, “Sulfolane Plume in Groundwater: Evaluation of Community Concerns about Sulfolane in Private Water Wells.”
“North Pole residents who consumed water with detectable levels of sulfolane from their private wells are not likely to experience negative health effects,” the study reads. It further says using water to shower, cook food and wash dishes for the most part will not harm people’s health.
No increase in cancer rates or birth defects were detected by the study either.
Shoup asked Ward if he looked into anything as mayor of North Pole or was made aware of anything contradicting the study.
“I’m not aware of anything that contradicts that,” he said
Shoup later asked Ward if he was aware of any doctor’s diagnoses for health issues related to sulfolane, to which Ward responded he is unaware of any diagnosed health issues.
The trial continues today.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7510. Follow her on Twitter: @FDNMlocal.