Sulfolane testing

Geologist Andrea Carlson of Shannon & Wilson, Inc. Geotechnical and Environmental Consultants, takes a water sample from a test well off of Champion Avenue in North Pole to be tested for the industrial contaminate sulfolane Wednesday afternoon, January 20, 2010.

Efforts to expand water services to North Pole and surrounding areas are well underway, with two of four zones designated for the project already in operation.

“There’s not a specific deadline (to sign up for water services),” said Bill Butler, director of city services in North Pole. “Zones one and two, the water mains were installed in 2018 and the state of Alaska gave approval to operate.”

The project results from a legal settlement between the city of North Pole, the state of Alaska and Flint Hills Resources, according to Butler.

Sulfolane, a man-made chemical compound, was detected in drinking water wells in areas near the North Pole Refinery back in 2009. Sulfolane is used in gasoline production and petroleum refining.

The discovery of the leak, which began under previous refinery owner Williams Alaska Petroleum Inc., resulted in a lawsuit between the previous owner and the new owner, Flint Hills Resources. The lawsuit has since expanded.

“The city joined a lawsuit that already existed between the current and former owners of the refinery and the state of Alaska,” said Rene Broker, an attorney representing the city of North Pole. “So the state of Alaska was the initial plaintiff and we filed a separate lawsuit against the refiners owners for the contamination, and then it was joined together with the state’s lawsuit.”

Initially the case was assigned to Judge Douglas Blankenship, but with the judge retiring, it was reassigned, resulting in the trial — Flint Hills Resources Alaska LLC. v. Williams Alaska Petroleum Inc. — being pushed back to a tentative date of Oct. 8.

Meanwhile, the water system expansion has carried on. There are four zones expanding the municipal water service to properties located within the sulfolane plume, with zones three and four having water mains installed this year.

“The water mains are complete in zone four, installation still continues in zone three,” Butler said.

People living in zones three and four, which include areas north of Badger Road according to Butler, could have water as early as the end of this summer.

Forms to fill out to sign up for the city’s water service can be picked up at North Pole City Hall or taken from the city’s website. The city’s website has step by step instructions for how to apply to be connected to the expanded water system at bit.ly/2WpT4xj.

People with questions about eligibility can contact North Pole City Hall. 

There is also no requirement to change to the new, expanded water system for those outside of the city.

“Inside the city limits, the city within our boundaries, there is a requirement if you are within 200 feet to connect to the water system,” Butler said, “but the vast majority of this expansion is going on outside of the city limits, so there is no requirement that you have to hook up to the water system.”

However, there is potential risk of sulfolane in water from other wells.

Butler said part of the expanded water system was the inclusion of a buffer area, where sulfolane hasn’t been detected yet, but where the plume has the ability to expand. The new water system will also be tested.

“It’s a reliable water system,” Butler said. “We’re licensed by the state of Alaska, so our water supply is routinely tested for a host of specific compounds.”

People interested in learning more about sulfolane and ongoing cleanup efforts can visit the Department of Environmental Conservation’s website, dec.alaska.gov.

Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7572.

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