NORTH POLE, Alaska -

Inside the Family Diner off the Richardson Highway, owner Edward Richards cooks breakfast for a regular patron seated at the counter. The diner is decorated in 1950s flash, with black and white checkered floors and shiny silver siding on the outside.

Richards knows most of the customers who walk through his doors. Lately, he said there’s been a lot of talk about Flint Hills closing down.

“That was the number one topic yesterday at lunch. Everybody was talking about the jobs,” he said.

The facility’s owners announced they were closing down the Flint Hills refinery and cutting more than 80 jobs. Richards said many of those people are regular customers. Losing them would hurt, he said.

“It’s huge for a small business.”

Flint Hills doesn’t only provide customers. The company also pays for Richards’s water. That’s because underneath his business, there’s a large plume of a solvent from a chemical spill years ago.

THE SPILL

The plume comes from a spill of sulfolane, an industrial solvent, at the refinery during the ownership by a company called Williams. Flint Hills bought the facility and the land beneath it in 2004. Since 2008, has been working with the community to get alternatives to well water to people in affected areas.

Director for the Spill Prevention and Response for the Department of Environmental Conservation, Kristin Ryan, said the sulolane spill was the first of its kind in the nation. That’s part of why the DEC has been so conservative with the acceptable amounts in drinking water.

Ryan said there’s little information yet on what a lot of exposure to sulfolane can do to humans, but it has been tested on rats. Using those studies, DEC has “extrapolated a level that they believe protects humans as well, though there are differences.”

When tests conducted in the area showed the water was contaminated, Flint Hills worked with the DEC and homeowners to make sure their drinking water was safe. Most home owners were given several choices, including a filtration system or a holding tank with water delivery.

The standard for the amount of contaminate in the water is 14 parts per billion. That’s equivalent to 14 drops of contaminate in an area of water the size of an Olympic swimming pool.

TAKING CARE

Richards said the company approached the diner to install the tank. Flint Hills also tested the city wells. The rate of sulfolane in the wells was below the limit required for clean up, but North Pole’s Director of City Services, Bill Butler, said the company offered to put in new wells for the city.

The new site is located upstream from the plant, so it won’t be contaminated even if the plume spreads underground. Butler gave a tour of the new well site. He said that the old wells were aging and the city would have had to replace them anyway. Instead, Flint Hills spent more than $7 million updating the city’s infrastructure.  “It’s been a positive working relationship,” he said.

TAINTED GARDENS

Frank Owenby lives just down the road from the Family Diner. A shed full of firewood is stacked neatly outside his home. Inside, Owenby has a bear hide hanging on his wall, along with custom knives he makes and sells.

Owenby’s water had a lot of metal in it before he got a filtration system from Flint Hills. That problem wasn’t related to the spill, but the filtration system from Flint Hills cleaned up the water.

Owenby said he’s still not sure about the water. He drinks bottled water now, just in case. “They don’t know,” he said. “Nobody really knows.”

He said he planted rhubarb in front of his house, and every year it comes up. Later, in the summer, the raspberry bushes bear fruit, too. But Owenby isn’t touching any of them. “You just can’t pick raspberries in your yard. We get tons of them, three kinds, wild and domestic. I can’t pick them anymore. I’m not eating them.”

The DEC tested local gardens for sulfolane levels and found trace amounts of the solvent. It was found in higher levels in the leaves of plants. After the study, the DEC said fruit and vegetables watered using contaminated water weren’t likely to harm people, but they recommend gardeners use water free of sulfolane to hydrate their edible plants. Flint Hills offered water for gardening to people in the affected areas.

WHO’S TO BLAME?

Flint Hills is suing the previous owner of the refinery, Williams, for the clean-up costs. The two companies have been in litigation for nearly three years over the issue. Jeff Cook, a spokesperson for Flint Hills, said the spill “happened during the ownership of Williams. It happened when the state owned the ground before we bought the refinery. So we’ve been stuck with all the clean-up costs.”

Currently Flint Hills is fighting a claim that they passed the statute of limitations to claim money for the clean-up from Williams.

Flint Hills also recently appealed to the DEC to raise the minimum amounts allowed in ground water before clean up. They wanted the DEC to raise the maximum from 14 parts per billion to 362. The DEC rejected that request. 

Residents of North Pole know they want clean water, but exactly what that means, and who should pay for it, are questions the court and state agencies are still examining.