The Boney Courthouse building in Anchorage holds the Alaska Supreme Court chambers. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Anchorage, Alaska (Alaska Beacon) – The former owner of a North Pole petroleum refinery is financially liable for groundwater pollution that has contaminated drinking-water wells around the refinery, the Alaska Supreme Court said in a ruling published Friday.
“While we’re still reviewing the decision in its totality, this is a huge win for the public, for the environment, and for the state,” Attorney General Treg Taylor said in an emailed statement. “We are very pleased that the Alaska Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s ruling holding Williams accountable for decades of releasing hazardous substances into North Pole’s drinking water aquifer.”
Williams Alaska owned and operated a refinery in North Pole from 1977 to 2004, when it was sold to Flint Hills Alaska.
Part of the refining process involved the use of a chemical known as sulfolane, a solvent. Spills and poor maintenance, the court found, resulted in sulfolane spilling on the ground, and Williams Alaska detected the chemical in local groundwater as early as 1996, though it didn’t report that fact to the state Department of Environmental Conservation for five years.
DEC officials also detected that the groundwater had been polluted by chemicals used in firefighting foam commonly known as PFAS. This spring, the Alaska Legislature voted to ban the use of PFAS foam in Alaska.
In 2014, Flint Hills and the state sued Williams Alaska, saying it should bear the cost of cleanup and containment. In the years since the sale, a plume of sulfolane has spread underground, away from the refinery, and neighboring homes have been forced to switch to piped water instead of local wells.
Williams Alaska raised a variety of arguments in defense, including the claims that sulfolane isn’t harmful, that DEC was negligent in oversight, that the refinery’s sales contract capped damages, and that the state was engaging in unconstitutional taking.
After a 16-day bench trial in 2019, a Fairbanks Superior Court judge found Williams Alaska mostly responsible for the costs of transitioning homes to piped water and for much of DEC’s future oversight costs.
The cost, the judge estimated, approached $100 million, when considering the cost of the new piped water system, the need to provide bottled water in the meantime, and the cost of new city-drilled wells.
Williams appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, which rejected Williams’ arguments except in one case. In that lone exception, the justices determined that the lower court had made a procedural error with the wording of an injunction but that it could be fixed by the judge.