Company denies skirting law with refinery near national park

BISMARCK, N.D. — The developer of a proposed oil refinery near picturesque Theodore Roosevelt National Park on Tuesday told North Dakota regulators that the company isn't trying to skirt state permitting law, though opponents say questions remain about the true scope of the project.

The state Public Service Commission questioned Meridian Energy Group officials during an informal meeting on why the company's production capacity for the Davis Refinery is listed at 49,500 barrels per day — just under the 50,000-barrel threshold that triggers a PSC siting review.

Such a review, which can take months and cost a company hundreds of thousands of dollars, ensures a proposed project is a good fit for the area's environment and residents. Some opponents believe the company is trying to avoid a review because it might reveal the proposed site near the park isn't good for the region.

While the company is within the law, "it doesn't sit well with folks," Commissioner Julie Fedorchak said. "Let's be honest. It looks like you're just barely skirting the siting requirements."

Meridian CEO William Prentice detailed why the company believes the plant with modern technology will be "the cleanest refinery in the world" and said the company has planned all along for a facility processing 27,500 barrels daily, with the possibility of expansion.

"We want to defer that (decision) until we're in operation and we decide which way this is going to go," he said.

Commissioners noted public opposition to the refinery because of its proximity to the park. Fedorchak unsuccessfully implored Meridian to voluntarily go through the siting process, and Commissioner Randy Christmann said he expects someone to file a complaint or legally challenge the company.

Prentice said that "for the plant we intend to build now, we believe we have complied with the applicable siting process."

The proposed 700-acre (280-hectare) refinery complex is about 3 miles (4.83 kilometers) away from the eastern boundary of the national park that's named for a former president revered for his conservation advocacy. The park is the state's top tourist attraction, drawing a record 760,000 visitors last year.

Supporters of the refinery point to its potential impact on the economy. It could create 500 construction jobs and permanent jobs for 200 people in the area, while generating millions of dollars in local property taxes each year.

"This is something that's going to be a shot in the arm for Billings County," said Greg Kessel, who owns the refinery site and serves on Meridian's board of directors.

The project has drawn opposition from national groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association and The Coalition to Protect America's National Parks, as well as regional groups such as the Badlands Conservation Alliance. They fear pollution from the refinery could add to haze in the region from coal-fired power plants and other sources such as vehicles on a nearby interstate highway.

Linda Weiss, a longtime resident of the nearby small town of Belfield and a member of the Dakota Resource Council environmental group, said in an interview after the meeting that there remain a lot of concerns about the proposed location and the size of the project.

A state Health Department review that began last spring determined earlier this month that Meridian has met all of the requirements for an air quality permit for the refinery. A public comment period on a draft permit ends Jan. 26.

The refinery also needs a state permit to draw water from an area aquifer, which has drawn opposition from some landowners. An administrative law judge is to hold a hearing on the matter, likely early next year.

Meridian hopes to have the refinery built by the end of next year, with operations beginning in early 2019, according to Prentice.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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